Pretoria - Despite losing a whopping R200 million each year to cable theft, the City of Tshwane believes it is winning the war against the scourge.
In recognising what he called a menace to the economy and wellbeing of residents, mayor Solly Msimanga last year set up a dedicated cable theft unit within the Metro Police and set aside R80m to fight the menace.
In his State of the Capital Address this year, Msimanga said it had come under increasing pressure as cable thieves relentlessly went about their disruptive business. On Tuesday, the department will unveil vehicles to be used by the unit.
City employees have previously been implicated in the theft - and MMC for Utility Services Darryl Moss admitted there were some “rotten apples in the barrel”. However, he said the City was closing in on them. “We have made a number of arrests, including some employees of the City. There are a number of initiatives under way that should curb this significantly. I think we are slowly winning the war,” said Moss.
It is estimated that most of the power outages in the city are caused by cable theft, and the rest are attributable to old infrastructure and illegal connections.
There were also other factors at play. Msimanga had said there were political forces working against the DA-led administration and “there is a good possibility some cable theft can be included in this”, said Moss.
In 2012, then police minister Nathi Mthethwa estimated that cable theft cost South Africa in the region of R5 billion a year.
According to Moss, the crime varied from opportunistic theft of small lengths of cable, mostly overhead electricity lines, to heavy underground cables or cable theft from substations and water treatment plants.
Metal expert Joel Mtshali said cable thieves worked for sophisticated gangs and the mafia. He said the trade could be traced to Asia for manufacturing electronic components. He said the burglary tactics were shockingly dangerous. “Thieves set fire to a portion of the cables triggering a short circuit, which trips the power and allows them to tear the rest down and cart it away,” he said.
The cables were then melted into ingots before being shipped for export, making it virtually impossible for authorities to differentiate them from legitimately mined and processed copper.
Several areas across the city have reported power outages over the past months owing to suspected cable theft. More recently, several areas in Pretoria East were plunged into darkness for nine days after a substation in Wapadrand burnt down. The City had to fork out R60million for repairs.
While residents attributed the substation fire to cable theft, Moss said: “The cause of the fire has not yet been determined. The City, as well as the insurers, are doing an in-depth investigation.”
Six days after engineers had repaired the substation, thieves helped themselves to the cables before it could be switched back on.
In Pretoria West, residents and businesses have also endured power outages. The chairperson of the Business Forum in Pretoria West, Zahid Afzal, said cables thieves had organised themselves into networks of metal spotters, cutters and transporters. “It is a lucrative illicit trade that is ballooning out of control.”
Deputy chairperson of the Community Policing Forum in Pretoria West Max Mogwayi said authorities had to deal with buyers. “If we cut out the buyers and prosecute them, then it will inevitably cut out the sellers. It won’t force thieves to steal.”
But the City said not all hope was lost. Plans to curb the crime include installation of hi-tech security systems like monitors, cameras, beams, access control and motion detectors.