Copper theft has cost the City of Cape Town more than R10 million in the first six months of this year as syndicates continue to sell it abroad at huge profits, especially to the lucrative Chinese market.
Police said the Hawks are investigating the scourge, which affects business profits, results in electricity blackouts and trains being regularly late.
Earlier this year, Energy Minister Dipuo Peters said there was an interministerial task team working on getting cable theft and electricity theft reclassified as serious economic crimes, or even sabotage, to enable harsher sentencing.
And the city’s safety and security directorate said while some cable thieves were opportunistic, others formed part of international syndicates who sold the copper to the highest bidders abroad.
Police have confirmed the Hawks form part of a specialised committee investigating the alleged syndicates.
It was believed the copper was sold to syndicates in Cape Town, transported to other parts of South Africa and eventually exported to countries like China. However, police declined to comment on suspected routes of the stolen copper.
Western Cape police spokesman Lieutenant Colonel André Traut said metal theft in the province was a “cause for concern”.
Traut said there was a committee which looked into measures to clamp down on metal theft.
“It is suspected that stolen copper is exported to foreign countries. However this office is not in a position to disclose any information, as it could jeopardise our investigations,” he said.
“Various initiatives are being applied to curb the theft of copper, and to apprehend those responsible for these crimes.
“Frequent operations are conducted at scrap metal establishments, and at the harbour.”
Last month, the Weekend Argus reported that Telkom, Spoornet and Eskom spent R263.5m from February 2010 to January this year dealing with cable theft and national estimates are that the economy loses about R5 billion a year to cable theft.
The Cape Chamber of Commerce and Industry and Business Against Crime warn that cable theft is having a devastating effect on businesses.
Last month, an alleged copper thief tried to steal a high-voltage copper cable along Klipfontein Road in Surrey Estate. The man was badly burnt when the cable exploded and he was arrested by members of the city’s Metal Theft Unit while recovering at hospital.
This incident caused R1m damage and power failures in Welcome Estate and Surrey Estate.
Richard Bosman, the city’s safety and security director, said it was believed syndicates were buying copper, accumulating it and selling it abroad for huge profits. He said there were several hot spots – Mitchells Plain; Philippi; Bonteheuwel; areas along the M5, specifically between Kromboom and Ottery roads; Manenberg, Bridgetown, and sections along Strandfontein and Swartklip Roads.
He said damage in these areas alone due to copper theft cost the city more than R10m since the start of the year.
Between January and last month, the city’s Metal Theft Unit, also known as the Copperheads, had arrested 101 suspects, Bosman said.
Since the start of this year, the unit has recovered stolen cabling worth R630 000. This amounted to 1 0516kg of cabling, at about R60 a kg.
The most common cables being stolen were overhead electrical cables. These were visible and easily accessible.
Medium and high-volatge underground cables were also stolen.
Bosman said theft led to power failures and dark streets posed a safety risk for residents.
Rail commuters were often left stranded because copper theft halted trains.
Cape Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Michael Bagraim said they had repeatedly questioned why South Africa was such a large exporter of copper, although there was no mining of copper in the country.
He said power outages and consequences of late trains were having an “enormous effect” on businesses and residents’ livelihoods. People were unable to travel to work, factories could not produce and businesses stood to lose millions.
“As a chamber we are begging for greater policing, more (surveillance) cameras and public interest. We need a concerted campaign to stop cable theft,” he said
Business Against Crime said the illegal copper export market was “thriving”.
Simi Pillay-Van Graan, the organisation’s strategy executive, said there was a strong demand from the East.
“It is attributable to the demand from China; it creates a bigger market, which allows syndicates to thrive.”
She said local businesses were chalking up huge losses. In some cases, they would have to downsize their operations and cut back on staff.
“People are losing their jobs, entire families are suffering.”
Pillay-Van Graan said current regulations allowed for an “open door” to export copper.
There was a lack of resources and regulations to search containers, she said.
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