In response to a question at the National Assembly last week, transport minister Ben Martins revealed that the loss due to copper theft at the government entities has steadily increased since 2008.
Copper cable theft has cost the Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) and Metrorail R19.5 million since 2006.
In the 2008/09 financial year, the copper theft value for the agencies was R2.66 million. It grew to R4.32 million in the 2009/10 financial year, and to R6.84 million in the 2010/11 year.
For the period starting 1 April 2011 up to January 2012, the cost of copper theft loss was already R2.40 million and the replacement cost was R4.84 million.
Pieter van Dalen, Democratic Alliance (DA) shadow deputy minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, says replies to a series of DA parliamentary questions have shown that fixed-line operator Telkom and parastatals Eskom, Transnet, Prasa and Metrorail lost in excess of R3.12 billion to copper theft between April 2006 and December 2011. “This figure does not even include consequential losses.”
Martins said increased security measures to combat this include vehicle and daily foot patrols; observations; scrap yard visits; asset protection units; tactical response teams; accompanying repair technicians; and tasking the signal department to vandal-proof certain high-risk cable areas by cementing the cables to prevent theft and damage.
He added that, in some areas, the protection of copper cables has been outsourced due to inadequate internal security capacity.
The minister also said the outsourcing of these services has seen a reduction in the number of reported thefts.
“The security companies are being used as an extension of the internal security contingent with their main focus being on infrastructure asset protection. It must, however, be noted that the rail network of Prasa covers a vast area and is, therefore, more exposed to acts of criminality. Nevertheless, theft in general is sporadic and diverse. In addition, specialised task teams consisting of internal security resources have been introduced to respond to this requirement.”
However, Van Dalen says an urgent solution is needed to address the R3.12 billion loss due to copper theft.
“Copper theft comes at a great cost to the public purse, [it] impacts on service delivery and hurts the economy as a whole – trickling down to affect economic growth, productivity and job creation. These effects ultimately hit poor South Africans the hardest.”
He adds that the “Copperheads” taskforce, established in Cape Town in 2007, has led to the arrests of between 200 and 300 people a year. “There is no reason why this success cannot be replicated by national government entities. The lesson we have learnt is that specialist, in-house copper theft prevention units work.”
Energy minister Dipuo Peters a year ago called for cable theft to be reclassified as a serious crime. "A person who steals the copper is a murderer, a thief and a saboteur." She explained that, without power cables, basic services, including emergency medical operations, are threatened.
Telkom says the severity of cable theft lies in the fact that ICT services are so fundamental to businesses and residents on a day-to-day basis. Theo Hess, Telkom's managing executive for network field services, says the services that cable theft disrupts are a “vital component to the running of businesses and an integral part of everyday living”.
The company has been hit by a spate of cable theft this year. “Telkom and its customers are heavily impacted by the deliberate cycle of cable theft. This is damaging businesses, depriving our customers of a basic service, and, in some cases, adversely affecting their security,” said Hess.
The SA Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SACCI) says its copper theft barometer indicated there was a decline in losses from cable theft to R17.9 million in June 2012, from R23 million in May, and R27.5 million in April.
“This is the third month characterised by a substantial decline in the barometer since the peak of R34.7 million in March.”
The chamber adds that the outlook for the fight against copper theft looks positive, given the latest data.
“Added to this, SACCI welcomes the implementation of proper training of police officers in the finer aspects of detecting and policing copper theft in terms of the Second-Hand Goods Act.
The South African security cluster is becoming more efficient in combating copper theft and the continued strengthening of capacity should result in some very promising results.”
Van Dalen says the official opposition has put forward a five-step plan to solve SA's copper theft crisis.
The first step was to implement the Second-Hand Goods Law of 2009, as it creates a solid framework for law enforcement to pursue and persecute copper thieves.
Also, copper theft must be made a priority at the SA Police Service and must be given its own crime code for the police. “At present, the SAPS crime database records copper theft in the category 'other crimes'. This means there are no reliable statistics of the incidence of copper theft, hampering the development of a sophisticated strategy to combat copper theft. We therefore propose that copper theft be given its own crime code so that it can be recorded separately,” explains Van Dalen.
The fourth step is to set copper theft reduction targets at parastatals and develop comprehensive strategic plans to meet these targets.
The final step is to build close co-operation with industry experts.