By Fred Kockott
While this week's theft of foundation bolts from a Durban electricity pylon - which caused a tower to collapse - might have been the work of opportunistic thieves, investigators say the scourge of electricity cable thefts, nationwide, has become a multi-million-rand industry supported and financed by organised syndicates.
Judging from briefings from people involved in combatting this crime, the level of organisation is vast, extending from the thieves at grassroots level - who received dedicated training in live-wire theft - through to crooked contractors, cops, customs officials and scrap metal merchants.
A common refrain from investigators is that South Africa does not have a copper mine, yet it is reckoned that as much as 3 000 tons of copper leave Cape Town harbour. At R50 per kg, this translates into stolen copper worth R15-million a month.
Engineering News estimates that South Africa loses in the order of R5-billion a year due to cable theft that disrupts electricity, telecommunications and rail services.
Investigations into cable theft now involve the National Intelligence Agency, SAPS Crime Intelligence Units, the SAPS Organised Crime Units, Metro municipalities and Business Against Crime, which has designed and is managing a national anti-theft strategy in consultation with various law enforcement organs.
For now, though, Cape Town remains the only local government in South Africa to have achieved major successes in combating this crime, following the introduction of a dedicated anti-cable-theft unit, dubbed the Copperheads.
Parliament was recently told that in the 2006/7 financial year, Cape Town recorded losses through cable theft of R22-million. This figure was slashed to R496 800 in the last financial year, while in Durban, losses through cable theft increased to R36-million.
Keith Moulder, deputy head of finance and administration in Durban's electricity department, said ongoing theft from the city's electricity networks had reached critical proportions. "We attribute this to the success that Cape Town achieved with their Copperheads," said Moulder.
"This forced these syndicates to move up the east coast for easier pickings."
Moulder said the Copperheads' investigations had shown that syndicates had even operated a training school at Brakpan, "training field staff on a military precision basis to remove lines".
"This was busted and they moved underground to train around the country. This is being done on a 'cell' basis," said Moulder.
He said it was very difficult to locate the ring leaders.
"In the case of the scrap metal merchants, they know that if they are busted with our marked cable or electrical components they will face prosecution.
"They have therefore set up teams that go around stripping our lines. This material is then taken to staging areas where the outer cable is stripped or burned off to remove any identification. The bright metal is then taken to the scrap metal merchants."