National government needs to be part of a whole-of-society effort to combat infrastructure theft and vandalism

Today I will join the Mayor of Johannesburg, Mpho Phalatse, the Johannesburg MMC for Environment and Infrastructure Services (EISD), Michael Sun, DA Gauteng Leader, Solly Msimanga, and DA Shadow Deputy Minister of Trade and Industry, Mat Cuthbert, on a Community Infrastructure Protection Patrol in the Kaya Sands, Bloubosrand and Northriding areas of Johannesburg.

Please see photos here, here, here and here.

This is the fifth such patrol the DA-led local government, together with the local Community Policing Forum (CPF), has undertaken in Johannesburg. Previous patrols have covered Eldorado Park, Ennerdale, Doornkop, Dobsonville, Florida, Stormill, Glenvista and Mondeor.

The theft and vandalism of public infrastructure – in particular copper cable and rail stock, but also telecommunications infrastructure and electricity substation equipment – has had a devastating effect on our economy and the businesses who rely on this infrastructure to operate. Equally, ordinary South Africans have had to bear the brunt of these crimes through collapsed service delivery and public transport. And it is a scourge that is rapidly accelerating.

According to councillor Sun, almost 1500 cases of vandalism and cable theft have been reported to City Power in the past year, costing the city R24m in damages and repairs. City Power has lost more than R187m to copper cable theft and damage to electrical infrastructure in the past five years and now spends R100m a year on security measures.

Transnet claims that the theft of copper cable has increased by 177% over the past five years. Last year Telkom, Eskom, Prasa and Transnet said in a statement that cable theft and infrastructure vandalism results in a direct loss of R7bn, but a staggering R187bn knock-on effect on the economy each year.

Our country and our economy cannot survive this relentless looting of critical infrastructure, and this is why the DA has taken action by setting up a task team and requesting a debate in the National Assembly on the matter. The Speaker of the National Assembly has agreed to our request and has granted this for the first week of Parliament’s return.

But our actions are not limited to the legislature. Today’s Community Infrastructure Protection Patrol, and those before it, are a demonstration of what we call the whole-of-society approach in combatting the challenges facing our country. The patrols include, among others, the Metro Police, local Community Watch, councillors and the CPF. It is this close cooperation between government, civil society and committed citizens that holds the key to overcoming this challenge.

But first the issue must be correctly identified. The solution to stemming the tide lies in law enforcement and crime prevention and not, as Ministers Pravin Gordhan and Fikile Mbalula claim, in banning the export of scrap metal. All that would do is play into the hands of those with vested interests in the upstream steel industry, as well as well as further encourage a massive local illicit market. This is an issue of criminality, and it requires an appropriate response.

In addition to involving the community in patrols such as these, there are a number of interventions available to local governments. These include setting up specialised units within metro and town law-enforcement authorities, placing indelible markings on all electrical infrastructure, securing infrastructure with antitheft bolts and fasteners, utilising alternative metals to replace copper, sharing information with local law enforcement and metal recyclers, and allocating the necessary budget for security patrols at sites such as substations.

Where the DA governs, we already prioritise the protection of infrastructure. In 2017, an Anti-Cable Theft Unit was established within the Tshwane Metro Police Department (TMPD) to provide static guarding at open tranches and substations, conduct patrols of hotspots, inspect scrapyards, and respond to cable theft complaints. In 2018 the City of Tshwane also purchased 103 off-road vehicles for the express purpose of combating cable theft. In the City of Johannesburg, the Metro Police Department (JMPD) is at an advanced stage of establishing a Special Patrol Unit to deal with infrastructure protection, and the Group Forensic and Investigation Service (GFIS) is also coordinating the City’s long-term strategy.

But even all these interventions at local level are not enough. What is required is the full cooperation of all spheres of government. National government needs to come to the party and match the efforts of this local government if we are to have any chance of success. We will make this call again when we debate this matter in Parliament, but this is what is urgently required of national government:

  • The Second-Hand Goods Act of 2009 must be properly implemented.
  • Copper theft must have its own crime code, and it must be a priority crime for the police.
  • A specialised police unit must be created within SAPS.
  • All relevant parastatals must set measurable copper theft reduction targets.
  • Law enforcement must establish close co-operation with metal recyclers to allow for better tracking of illegally-traded metals.
  • The Non-ferrous Metals Crime Combating Committee must be better empowered through legislation and its own dedicated budget.
  • Government must establish a reward hotline.
  • The backlog of scrap dealer licences must be eradicated.
  • The recording of all scrap metal sales must be standardised.

Only through full cooperation between local, provincial and national governments – including specialised units within SAPS and Metro Police – and with the help of civil society, the business community and committed citizens – will we end the scourge of infrastructure theft and vandalism. These criminals have attacked all of us, and it will take a whole-of-society effort to fight them back.