File Picture: AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

Johannesburg - Cellular network provider MTN said incidences of cell tower battery theft almost doubled in the past week, compared to the previous week. 

This saw the incidences increase to 125 last week, versus 74 in the previous week. 

In April, MTN said 733 batteries were stolen from their sites across the country. Each battery costs an estimated R28 000. 

Vodacom said it was hopeful that the new Infrastructure Act would ensure that there were harsh sentences handed to criminals who stole or vandalised key network infrastructure, including cell tower batteries. 

“The new Infrastructure Act works in our favour as it ensures the imposition of harsher sentences to perpetrators of vandalism and theft of infrastructure in the country,” said Vodacom spokesperson, Byron Kennedy. 

Both MTN and Vodacom are calling on the community to report people who are operating as part of a syndicate, by reporting incidences of theft to the police or through various tip-off lines (which are provided at the bottom of this article).

“Vodacom is fighting back. Vodacom has ramped up the fight against this criminal activity, and is working closely with law enforcement agencies and security companies to arrest thieves for prosecution. We also appeal to members of the community to report this form of crime to police,” he said, adding that theft of batteries could lead to poor or no network or internet coverage affected areas.

Ernest Paul, MTN’s general manager for network operations, said a concerted drive to clamp down on syndicates and opportunistic criminals was needed. 

He said MTN’s worst hit areas included Soweto, Tembisa, Vereeniging and Parktown, but pointed out that the theft was a nationwide problem. 

“Battery theft and related vandalism is costing MTN hundreds of millions of rand and the impact on the entire industry is exorbitant. Recent data shows MTN had 733 batteries stolen from its sites across the country in April,” said Paul.

Kennedy said the theft of batteries raised possibilities of a network blackout. 

But more importantly than the monetary impact, criminals are cutting off entire communities,” he said.

Paul said the replacement of batteries at 100 sites could easily cost the cellular network over R10m, excluding the cost of repairs to cell towers which are often vandalised during the theft.

“We must avoid the costs of these thefts impacting the consumer, so shutting down these criminals has to be a priority. If left unchecked, entire communities, individual customers and small businesses alike, in affected areas, will struggle to access their mobile services as the theft comes with extensive damage to the entire network infrastructure,” said Paul.

Kennedy said they were aware there was a syndicate operating  and were working with MTN, the police, private security and the community to crackdown the operations of the syndicate.

We are aware that some of the stolen batteries are being sold to neighbouring countries. This is why we encourage everyone who has concrete evidence or information to report the matter to the police,” said Kennedy.

Paul added: “We are constantly looking at ways to eradicate the problem of battery theft. However, everyone has a role to play. While operators are under siege from these thieves, the people most affected are South Africans, who rely on their mobile connectivity for home and work, and for their safety and security systems”.  

Kennedy said the stolen batteries were sold in the country, while others made their way over the border. 

“It is time to fight back and this starts with all South Africans playing their part. One simple call can make a world of difference in what has now become an endemic problem which is affecting all South Africans,” said Paul.

Kennedy said: “We’d like to appeal to ordinary members of the community to report incidents of battery theft or site vandalism” by calling our toll free number”.

Anti-crime activist Yusuf Abramjee said he had been highlighting the problem in the recent weeks.

“It’s a major problem. Hundreds of batteries are stolen each month. Millions of rands is being lost. It appears syndicates are at work. Once stolen, these batteries are being re-sold. It is costing the industry millions of rands and it is also causing disruptions.

“We have evidence that many of these batteries are leaving South Africa and it’s been openly sold in countries such as Zimbabwe. These batteries are stolen from largely MTN and Vodacom towers.”

He has called on government to act urgently, and decisively. 

“I have already alerted SARS to probe the smuggling of these batteries and to stop it.”

“Someone, somewhere, somehow knows something. Tipoffs work. I appeal to the public to pass on information. Let’s get them arrested.”

Report cellphone tower battery thefts on these numbers: 

Vodacom 082 241 9952

Bidvest Protea Coin Hotline – Call 086 101 1721

MTN Fraud Line – Call 083 123 7867

SAPS 10 111

Telkom 0800 124 000

Cell C 084 135

Or email [email protected]