Durban - Charges of racketeering have been laid against 26 people alleged to be part of a syndicate responsible for the theft of copper cables and conductors from Transnet and Eskom in KwaZulu-Natal worth “tens of millions of rands”.

The accused appeared in the regional court in Pietermaritzburg on Tuesday amid a heavy police presence.

Armed guards patrolled the court as the large contingent of accused filed into the dock.

Prosecutor Annelize Harrison confirmed on Tuesday that a certificate had been issued in terms of the racketeering charges, which now formed part of the charge sheet.

The accused face 189 charges, arising from the theft and disposal of copper cables and conductors in KZN.

Addressing Magistrate Corrie Greyling on Tuesday, Harrison said she envisaged that the State’s case would take three to six months to complete.

The matter was adjourned to December for a pre-trial conference and for the State to furnish the defence attorneys with further particulars.

All the accused are in custody, except for one - Bashir Rashid - owner of Afro Metals, a scrap metal dealership with branches in KwaDukuza (Stanger) and Phoenix.

Rashid, who is being fingered as a major role-player in the syndicate, is on bail of R500 000.

Rashid and some of the other accused were arrested during an undercover operation named “Nuclear”, involving the Hawks and privately owned Combined Private Investigations.

The operation began after four alleged cable thieves escaped from the Hazeyview police station in Mpumalanga in early 2012.

The escapees and their Highveld gang fled to Durban, and split into two crews. Months of mayhem and outages followed with theft of cable in the Midlands and on the coast.

Investigators revealed that last year alone, 86 crime scenes were recorded in KZN, in which overhead cables owned by Eskom or Transnet were cut.

Operation Nuclear tackled an alleged big cable syndicate in two dramatic busts: in September 2012, and one in November last year.

Warrant Officer Craig Botha of the Organised Crime Unit in Pietermaritzburg, in an affidavit opposing bail in respect of Rashid and some of the other accused, cited the scale of the investigation.

He said the group responsible for the theft in KZN was well structured and had evaded arrest for a long time.

Daily News