A year ago, laying copper cable in Cape Town was a rather demoralising job.
It was quite possible to put down the cable one day, only for it to be stolen the next, says Pieter van Dalen, chairperson of the City of Cape Town’s antiferrous-metal theft squad, the Copper Heads.
“We were running around replacing cables instead of doing much-needed maintenance, not to mention the fact that large parts of the city were without power until we could replace the cables.”
The justice system also failed to serve as a deterrent, with convictions secured in only 4% of copper theft cases in Cape Town.
“This meant a copper cable thief had a 96% chance of getting away with his crime,” says Van Dalen.
However, things have changed over the last year in the Western Cape capital, with the odds improving significantly in favour of the good guys.
Formed just more than 12 months ago, the Copper Heads – the city’s answer to the never- ending loop of theft and reinstallation – have slashed annual losses attributed to copper theft from R22-million, to R500 000, says Van Dalen.
Arrests have numbered just under 200.
How exactly did they manage this?
The Method, the Madness
Van Dalen, a city councillor, has come across many strange incidents in the first year the Copper Heads were operational.
One was the arrest of a contractor, who was also a well-known pastor, for the alleged theft of copper cable.
Another involved a persistent 16-year old, whom the Copper Heads have now arrested for the third time.
“The first time we nabbed him, we tracked him down in intensive care, where he spent two months after being shocked while trying to steal copper cables. He has received so many shocks that his hands are completely disfigured,” explains Van Dalen.
The name Copper Heads refers to a “quiet, but deadly” South American snake, he adds.
“We believe the name alone must already strike fear in the hearts of criminals.”
The Copper Heads have 13 reaction force members, who work seven days a week.
Their work includes visiting scrapyard owners, looking for stolen metal.
They are also on standby at night to follow up calls from the public to a 24-hour, toll-free number.
Other team members include six internal officials who investigate council members and contractors to the council, while also scrutinising the internal processes followed by the Cape Town City Council in the sale of its legitimate scrap metal.
“We’ve arrested 30 council officials and nine contractors over the last 12 months,” says Van Dalen.
This includes two City of Cape Town Water Demand Management Services employees, caught red-handed as they tried to sell 27,5 kg of brass taps – for which they received R962,50 – to a scrapyard.
Van Dalen adds that part of the unit’s success can be attributed to the fact that he works with the team on the ground, instead of giving orders from an air-conditioned office.
“I also work with the media, highlighting our successes, which provides us with positive feedback, and the support of the community.”
Van Dalen notes that the Copper Heads had no budget when the unit started work last year, and had only the bare necessities in terms of equipment.
“Hopefully, things will change this year.”
The ABC of Copper Cable Theft
Stolen copper can sell for between R40 and R60 a kilogram, either on the street or at a scrap dealer.
The copper cables targeted the most are those used for street lighting, says Van Dalen.
“Thieves will come during the night, digging a pilot hole to determine the thickness and direction of the cable.
“The next night they will return to dig up the cable.
“From here on the cable is typically dragged into the bushes, where it is stripped for the copper inside. This process includes an attempt to remove all identifying marks,” explains Van Dalen.
Once this is done, the copper is sold on to a scrap dealer, or a so-called bucket shop – which is an unregistered scrap dealer specialising in stolen metal, usually operating within a residential area.
“We have 3 500 bucket shops in the Western Cape, where people literally sleep on the copper,” says Van Dalen.
From the bucket shop or the scrap dealer, the copper – by this time untraceable – goes to one of the big five scrap dealers, from where it is exported to the East.
“Cape Town exported R77-million of copper last year, and we don’t have a single copper mine,” says Van Dalen.
“You don’t have to be a genius to figure out where this comes from.”
An economist at Western Cape trade and investment agency Wesgro, Craig Lemboe, says the province exported R230-million of copper last year, compared with R204-million the previous year.
However, he notes that this figure includes legal copper scrap exports, as well as mined exports from other parts of the country.
“It is difficult to ascribe a specific number to theft.”
Van Dalen says the typical small-time copper thief is either a drug addict or very poor.
They are, however, in the minority, he adds, with gangs responsible for most of the copper theft in Cape Town.
“In the scrap trade, there are large cartels at work.”
Van Dalen says copper is the metal of choice among metal thieves, followed by steel, brass water meters – of which the Copper Heads recovered 130 at a scrap dealer in June – as well as a newcomer to the hit list, palisade fencing.
The theft of nonferrous metals in South Africa has become a serious problem in recent years and, although the number of incidents and related costs decreased between 2001 and 2004, the occurrence of this crime increased sharply during 2005, 2006, and 2007, says advocate Simi Pillay-van Graan, national project manager of the nonferrous crime combating committee (NFCCC) at Business Against Crime (BAC) South Africa.
She says this can be attributed to the dramatic increase in copper and aluminium prices as a result of the rapidly growing demand for these materials.
The NFCCC was formed in 1993 in an attempt to combat this type of crime. Major role-players involved include the police, Eskom, Telkom, Transnet, and the BAC.
According to Pillay-van Graan, there has been a marked increase in nonferrous-metal theft in recent months. For example, during August 2005 alone, there were more than a thousand incidents of such theft, increasing to 2 500 during August 2006, and to more than 4 000 incidents during August 2007.
The estimated direct cost of cable theft in South Africa is R500-million a year.
However, Pillay-van Graan notes that the estimated indirect cost of cable theft to the economy is ten times higher than the expenditure required to replace these cables.
This means South Africa loses nearly R5-billion a year as a result of cable theft, which disrupts electricity, telecommunication and rail services.
It is especially utilities, parastatals and municipalities that suffer at the hands of cable thieves.
Telkom has experienced a surge in copper cable theft over the last two years, translating into a loss of R685-million in 2006/7, and increasing to R863-million for 2007/8 at the end of January this year.
Cable theft losses by Telkom, Eskom and Spoornet increased by 70% in 2006 compared with figures for 2005.
In 2005, Telkom, Eskom and Spoornet reported more than 6 500 incidents of cable theft, and in 2006 this surged to 11 000 incidents.
Johannesburg electricity utility City Power said in July this year that cable theft is already up 300% from last year.
According to figures released in Parliament by Minister of Provincial and Local Govern-ment Sydney Mufamadi in April, copper cable theft had collectively cost the six metropolitan councils R71,8-million in 2007.
This included a whopping R36-million for the eThekwini metro, R15,4-million for Tshwane, R13-million for the Ekurhuleni metro, R4,7-million for Johannesburg, R2-million for Nelson Mandela Bay, and about R500 000 for the City of Cape Town.
As noted earlier, the Copper Heads are responsible for Cape Town’s much lower figures.
Pillay-van Graan says the copper export market deserves much more attention should the NFCCC wish to combat nonferrous-metal theft more effectively.
“The export market and the associated processes have not been a focus of the NFCCC, resulting in an attempt to treat the symptoms of the crime, and a failure to address the core of the problem.
“This is clear in the escalating numbers of incidents in recent years.
“If the number of thefts is to be reduced, the market into which the stolen cable is disposed must be addressed, and more effective response mechanisms from both government and business need to be put in place.”
Pillay-van Graan adds that the NFCCC is in the process of unpacking the Second-Hand Goods Act and the International Trade Administration Act, closing down loopholes, so that it can better regulate the export process.
This could include a closer look at enforcing the licences necessary to trade in second-hand goods.
The NFCCC last year changed its structure to incorporate more members, as well as members at a higher organisational level.
Today it is no longer the industry- led body that was created in 1993, but rather a government-led body chaired by the police.
“This is seen as a major achievement as it would instil the governance structure at the level where it is required, and specifically obtain the required buy-in and cooperation from the South Africa Police Service and other law enforcement organisations that have not been available in the past,” says Pillay-van Graan.
Another focus of a renewed effort to combat nonferrous- metal theft is to consider that it is no longer viewed as a crime by subsistence thieves alone, but has also become a favourite among crime syndicates, and that it must be treated as planned, well- executed and organised crime.