Thieves have found new loot in the form of aluminium street poles along Solomon Mahlangu Drive. Picture: Bongani Shilubane/African News Agency (ANA)

Pretoria - Thieves have found a new pot of gold in Mamelodi - the bulbs at the top of the aluminium street light poles along Solomon Mahlangu Drive, as well as the cables. The bulbs have vanished thick and fast in the past few weeks, while cables are presumably being sold for scrap metal.

More than 30 poles have already been sawn off and the bulbs and cables removed. Their final destination remains a mystery, including to police. Given that they stand at 10m tall, their disappearance is attracting a lot of attention.

The case of the pilfered poles has stumped even the metro police and left many wondering how the perpetrators managed to make off with a conspicuous street fixture.

The poles have been sawn down during the day and in the middle of the night.

Alice Madima, an Ikageng resident, said this was a newfound phenomenon in the township. “I have to say we haven’t seen this before.

“The culprits know what they’re doing we’re talking about high poles. It’s not like you can stick one in a grocery cart and get rolling.”

The culprits seemed to have the act down to precision and efficiency, she said. Another resident said the culprits had numerous modus operandi; sometimes they have gone as far as dressing up as utility crews.

Police said they placed orange traffic cones around the poles about to be felled to avoid arousing suspicion among motorists.

Residents said the thugs stood on the shoulders of their accomplices to reach the top of the poles.

Residents noticed about three to four men elevate each other in this manner, with the top one hanging on to the light until it broke or bent.

In other cases, they boldly walked up to the poles with very long step ladders to get to the top.

Either way, the job gets done, leaving parts of the road dark. The cables inside the light posts get mangled and the massive light bulbs snatched out.

On Monday what was left behind were 4m stubs of metal.

Residents in Ikageng and Extension 4 said the streets were extremely dark, rendering them vulnerable. The community, especially nurses and students, said they had told police they had become afraid to use the road at night because of muggings, which had become frequent being a stone’s throw away from the University of Pretoria’s Mamelodi Campus.

Some residents suspected nyaope users cashed in on the scrap metal to pay for their next fix by ripping the metal pipes off radiators and wires from vacant houses, as well as cast-iron security grates and downspouts from buildings.

A resident, who asked not be named, said: “It is brazen. If the cops can’t catch guys cutting down 30-foot poles, how are they going to crack a major drug gang?”

But metal expert Joel Mtshali said these were sophisticated criminals who knew how the electric current worked and might even have as electrical background. “Not to say nyaope users aren’t smart enough, but this type of job takes precision and adequate knowledge.”

A scrap metal owner in Phase 5, known as Bra Joe, said he and other local scrap metal dealers were “on high alert” for sections of aluminium light poles and would not buy them. But Bra Joe suggested the thieves may be cutting the poles into pieces, then selling the scrap aluminium in town. “People want well-lit areas when they’re walking or driving.

Pole theft is a crime. We will actively pursue anybody caught doing it or suspected of it.”

For now, though, parts of Solomon Mahlangu Drive have grown darker by nightfall.

Metro Police spokesperson Senior Superintendent Isaac Mahamba said they were aware of the cable theft along Solomon Mahlangu Drive. “In the past two weeks we’ve launched a new fleet of vehicles to beef up the department to deal with the challenges decisively.

“We will also beef up this unit with necessary equipment to make sure that we address the challenge of cable theft holistically,” he said.

The City spent R30million on 103 off-road vehicles to combat cable theft.

Mahamba said the team will monitor hot spots. “We have arrested suspects for such crimes and will continue to do so as cable theft results in power outages."

Pretoria News