The South African government has published draft proposals to address the widespread theft of copper cable and other forms of metal from public infrastructure that has crippled power supplies, left trains unable to operate and damaged public facilities in many parts of the country.
The proposals have been developed following consultations by the Departments of Trade, Industry and Competition (the dtic), Police, National Treasury, Mineral Resources and Energy, Public Enterprises (including state owned enterprises), and Transport and was published in the Government Gazette today by Minister Ebrahim Patel.
The draft measures propose a six-month export prohibition on scrap and waste metal, including copper cable, together with a permit system for export of specified semi-processed metal products.
This is the first of three envisaged phases, with further actions proposed in future that include a new, enhanced registration system for scrap buyers and sellers to improve monitoring, policing and law-enforcement, limitations on the ports and (potentially) border posts to be used for trade in scrap metal, and changes to the legislation to make it more difficult for stolen copper and metal to be traded.
In a notice in the Government Gazette published today, notice no 47202, the Minister of Trade, Industry and Competition Ebrahim Patel invited public comments and representations on the proposed measures within 21 days, before final decisions are taken.
The measures were developed following sustained damage to public infrastructure from criminal theft of electricity cables, power pylons, railway tracks, traffic lights and manhole covers that has reached crisis levels. Criminals are targeting public infrastructure that taxpayers have invested in to expand service delivery to communities across the country.
The economic damage of copper theft alone has been estimated at more than R45 billion annually. This was the findings in research commissioned by the dtic from an independent research team from Genesis Analytics. Some examples illustrate the extent of the problem:
Transnet’s regularly published cable theft statistics show that during a single week in April 2022 there were 123 attacks on South Africa’s rail infrastructure, including the theft of 39.4 km of copper cable. It is estimated that between 2017 to 2021, the length of cable annually stolen from Transnet’s lines increased from 120 km to 724 km, and the number of incidents rose from fewer than 2 000 to almost 4 500.
Research found that the export of metal provides a crucial monetisation channel for criminals, and South Africa’s ports and borders are not adequately resourced to prevent the export of stolen scrap and semi-finished metal products. The sheer size of public infrastructure across the country made it necessary to identify additional measures that, together with improved policing, can be effective in protecting public assets in the national interest.
In February this year, President Ramaphosa committed in the State of the Nation Address that Government would take decisive steps to address the damage to public infrastructure from criminals who steal infrastructure containing metal and sell this to intermediaries who, for example, export the metal or disguise its origin and sell the metal to legitimate metal processors in South Africa.
There is growing public outrage at the damage that such theft does to South Africa’s economy through the additional cost of repairing and replacing damaged infrastructure, the inconvenience to workers and commuters from rail disruptions, the financial cost of electricity disruptions to businesses of all sizes, and the safety risk to our communities and especially children when criminals damage and leave behind exposed live electricity cables.