The venal trade by thieves, dodgy scrap dealers and criminal syndicates - who sell to copper-thirsty economies in the East, mainly India and China - is lucrative for the dirty few, but comes at a vast cost to South Africans, from commuters and householders to businesses and public enterprises.
One of the most extensive studies of copper crime in recent years, a Unisa master’s in criminology by William Pretorius in 2012, presents the crisis as “one of the most serious challenges facing economic growth and development in South Africa”.
The study acknowledges that there are legal and illegal scrap metal operations, but notes that “respondents” in the research “believed that there should be a strict clear policy relevant to all scrap metal dealers, which could work if controlled. Metal merchants knew what was right, but they ignored compliance because of bad control, weak law enforcement, and untrained police”.
Pretorius’s research reveals details about the modus operandi of the criminals, ranging from subsistence thieves to syndicates with international links.
Telkom, Eskom and Transnet - along with municipalities - are the chief targets of the multibillion-rand thieving. Particularly vulnerable were Eskom, with “approximately 370 000 plus kilometres of exposed electrical cabling that covers vast distances over kilometres of remote areas making these cables extremely vulnerable to theft”, and Transnet, which faced “a similar challenge in securing about 23000km of rail track” and, in 2009/10, and “was consistently losing more than 20km of copper cable to criminal syndicates each month”.
In some cases - back in 2011 - thieves walked away with up to 8km of cable in one go.
Telkom “highlighted the fact that the increase in copper cable theft was fast creating an environment of a rapidly deteriorating service quality. It was also severely affecting the delivery of sustainable information communication technology services to customers.”
Equally, “the threat to municipalities is real, substantiated by the crippling effect it has on municipalities”.
Pretorius noted of one informant’s view: “It was evident that copper theft was a very serious threat to the critical infrastructures which provided essential services to the country. If this was continuously overlooked and allowed to continue, the quality of life of all citizens would be influenced. What was disturbing was the alleged ignorance of this crime within the law enforcement environment and its policy makers. It seemed as if there was very little or no SAPS involvement. It was as if the SAPS were leaving this problem to the industries and to the security industry to resolve.”
A common complaint was that “role players (fighting the scourge) needed to form a collaborative front because even though they were all actively involved in combating copper theft crimes, they still worked in unco-ordinated silos”.
The study drew a connection between the international price of copper and copper theft, and, in particular, the “massive demand from China and India, whose urbanising economies are voracious consumers of copper”.
China’s demand constituted 40% of the global demand.
Pretorius’s study noted that “copper cable theft holds a specific danger for the entire South African industry infrastructure in that it causes a domino effect that vibrates on all levels. For example, if the transport system such as buses, trains, or ships, were to stop being operational, all the supporting and dependant services would follow.
“The indirect impact would be on the people making use of these transport services - thousands of people would be late for work, freight deliveries would be delayed and business would be without stock, etc. This could escalate into striking, angry, frustrated people - complaints and retaliation, vandalism, driver threats, hi-jacking of transport, burning of property, overcrowding, possible claims and even loss of life.”
The study noted that “not all scrap metal dealers were involved in crime. Their work was deemed necessary and it was legal. However, the illegal trade was far more lucrative than the legal trade and consequently the opportunities were, for most, too attractive to say no.”
Pretorius wrote of his findings: “Demand and supply was the order of the day, and one of the respondents believed that 95% of scrap metal dealers would buy stolen copper if it was presented to them.
“The respondents supported the notion that the scrap metal market was in no manner policed sufficiently. There were so many loopholes that in a way they had become untouchable. They created the market, thus they were in control.
“Copper as a commodity was in such great demand that the weak security and law enforcement situation in this country allowed copper to be provided/stolen on demand, for scrap metal dealers, who could destroy any evidence quickly through recycling.
“Bucket shops and scrap metal dealers were one and the same. Together they found loopholes in the systems, for example, they moved stolen copper cables through internal networks, making the identification and quantification of stolen copper very difficult.”
Pretorius wrote that “respondents believed that about 5 000 scrap metal dealers resided in South Africa (and that) according to the respondents, all the stolen copper had to go through the hands of scrap metal dealers and the recycling vendors. This made the scrap metal dealers the key to the mitigation of copper cable theft.”