Picture: Some parts of Freedom Square in Kliptown, Johannesburg bear no electricity, electrical cables have been stolen including metallic fixtures which are being taken to scrap yards for metal exchange. Timothy Bernard African News Agency (ANA).
By Gwinyai Taruvinga
The former CEO of Eskom, Andre de Ruyter, in his widely reported interview with a broadcaster, revealed that among the many challenges the state-owned entity faces, infrastructure vandalism was a major contributor to its failure to provide electricity to the country.
De Ruyter said criminal syndicates had targeted infrastructure that included aluminium cables and pylons.
In a report published by the Geneva-based Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, it was stated that South Africa’s infrastructure is suffering because of sustained and organised theft of copper which has affected the transport, energy, water, communication and fuel sectors. The crimes have eroded the state’s ability to provide critical services, as witnessed through power cuts and water shortages in the country.
It has been estimated that the cost of infrastructural vandalism in South Africa amounts to more than R47 billion annually. Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan has gone as far as stating that the perpetrators of the crimes should be charged with treason as the damage has huge ramifications for the country. The theft of copper cables has often left trains grounded which affects passengers who travel to and from work. Gordhan noted that cable theft was a contributing factor in a R2bn loss in revenue for Transnet in 2021. He also alluded to how an estimated 742km of Eskom cables being stolen had further strained the grid.
The Minister of Trade and Industry, Ebrahim Patel, stated that to address the theft of infrastructure, the government had put in place a raft of measures. One of those included the prohibition of scrap copper export for a six months, upon which a system to regulate the trade of such metals would be put in place.
The government has proposed a three-phase approach to address theft. In the first phase, a licensing system for copper trading will be introduced. Individuals purchasing copper must provide an electronic banking record for the scrap metal they possess. In addition to this, sellers of copper waste and scrap metal must be registered.
In the second phase, a licensing system will be put in place for all copper trading and sellers of copper waste and scrap metal will be required to register under the Second-Hand Goods Act (SHGA). In order to register, applicants are required to show a tax-clearance certificate while dealers will be required to make submissions of detailed purchase and sales information to a centralised database.
In the third phase, the government will consider amendments to legislation or passing new legislation to create a dedicated metal trading licensing regime. Individuals and entities may be blacklisted from government contracts if they are deemed to have contravened metal trading regulations.
The three phases are a positive step towards resolving the challenge at hand.
Patel noted that there was an attempt to strike a balance between the needs of the overall economy and society relative to those of firms and individuals whose commercial interests would be negatively affected. His counterpart, Gordhan, welcomed the interventions by alluding to how Transnet had reported a 30% improvement in copper-cable theft for the year to November 2022. Although that could be deemed a positive step there were challenges to curbing crime.
Organisations such as the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) welcomed the government’s decision as it believes that it would significantly improve its ability to run trains and protect the rail infrastructure. The Group CEO of Prasa, Hishaam Emeran, said the theft of infrastructure should be viewed as acts of sabotage due to the debilitating effects on the provision of services to the populace.
Prasa noted that it had introduced military-grade fencing to protect valuable infrastructure. As a result, the crimes against infrastructure had reduced significantly but that had come at a huge financial cost to the organisation, thus meaning that the government initiatives were a welcome solution.
South Africa can also draw from fellow African countries like Kenya which had a similar approach. In Kenya, the government lifted its short-lived ban on scrap metal dealing in favour of using a licensing system for dealers. The Kenyan government had imposed a ban on scrap metal dealing, with the hope of curbing crimes targeting the theft of transformers, transmission lines, and infrastructure for roads and railways.
In Kenya, it was evident that the banning of scrap metal failed to yield the desired results of combating theft, hence the government instead opted for a licensing system. Uganda, like Kenya, also imposed a ban on the sale of scrap metal after widespread theft which shows the growing challenge the continent faces with the theft of infrastructure.
Within the South African context, various issues have caused the theft, and these can be mainly linked to the high cost of living which has seen a spike in other crimes. Although the government measures are a welcome step towards addressing the theft of infrastructure, measures also need to be put in place that encourages a more inclusive economy that provides the citizenry with avenues to make a living. The theft of infrastructure has huge ramifications for the country and the government must find a lasting solution that goes beyond merely introducing policies.
*Gwinyai Taruvinga is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Wits Humanities Graduate Centre.