#PoeticLicence: Where do stolen copper cables go?

Rabbie Serumula, author, award-winning poet and journalist. Picture by Nokuthula Mbatha

Rabbie Serumula, author, award-winning poet and journalist. Picture by Nokuthula Mbatha

Published Feb 17, 2024


I'm not adept at making connections, whether it's with people or electrical circuits. However, it seems imperative for municipalities to thoroughly inspect their inventories. If a lone mini-substation could vanish from City Power’s Booysens premises back in 2014, only to resurface by sheer coincidence a decade later in Lenasia, connected to the grid via a suspiciously acquired 1km cable, then how many more could be missing?

This revelation sheds light on the intricate network of illegal activities entwined with the theft of crucial electrical infrastructure in South Africa. The faces of the perpetrators vary as much as the colours of our supposed rainbow nation; it's the magnitude of their thievery that sets them apart.

Many now realise that those unfamiliar with the intricacies of electricity and the fate of stolen infrastructure have had their eyes opened wide. Gone are the days of assuming that only small-time thieves, locally known as izinyoka, are responsible, or that scrapyards are the sole destination for pilfered metals. While stripping cables for their valuable copper and selling them for scrap is one common fate for stolen infrastructure, it's just the tip of the iceberg.

The demand for copper, a vital element in numerous industries like telecommunications and construction, incentivises thieves to target electrical cables, exacerbating the pervasive issue of metal theft plaguing South Africa.

But what happens to stolen substations and cables once they disappear into the clandestine depths of the underground economy? The answer lies in the multifaceted black market, where stolen electrical components are repurposed, dismantled or sold for profit.

Stolen substations often find their way into illegal electricity connections, clandestinely powering unauthorised settlements or businesses. These covert hookups not only pose grave safety hazards but also strain the grid, leading to overloads, outages and revenue losses for utility providers. It's no wonder the City of Joburg initiated an aggressive campaign to recoup its outstanding debts at Joburg Metro Police-run roadblocks.

The discovery of this stolen mini-substation occurred during a routine City Power revenue collection effort, prompted by a new nearby business inadvertently uncovering the hidden crime while seeking connection through the same mini-substation. This revelation hasn't just exposed the vastness of the underground economy but has also resulted in the arrest of the proprietor of a local hardware store, spotlighting the severe repercussions of such illicit activities.

While my knowledge of electrical connections barely extends beyond operating a stove to boil an egg, the repercussions of stolen infrastructure reach far beyond mere financial implications. Communities plunged into darkness due to theft endure disrupted services, compromised safety and economic setbacks. Moreover, the burden of replacing stolen infrastructure falls on utility providers, diverting resources away from enhancing service delivery and infrastructure development.

The estimated value of the stolen mini-substation and its connecting cable is approximately R1,3 million. This revelation underscores the scale of organised crime prevalent in electricity theft, where stolen infrastructure serves as a profitable commodity for illicit trade.

Saturday Star

Rabbie Wrote