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South Africa: Rampant Infrastructure Theft Jeopardises Public Services

South Africa: Rampant Infrastructure Theft Jeopardises Public Services

Already facing an array of setbacks, South Africa’s key public services have been suffering systematic infrastructure thefts spurred by surging metal and fuel prices, which have caused recurring disruptions and hefty financial losses.

While Eskom is committed to publicly release schedules for load-shedding cuts, criminal elements use the information to embark on looting sprees targeting the state electricity company’s facilities, says CEO Andre de Ruyter.

“On load-shedding and criminality, we are [stuck] between a rock and a hard place when it comes to announcing the load-shedding schedules,” De Ruyter told The Africa Report in a recent meeting of the Economic Sabotage of Critical Infrastructure Forum, held at Megawatt Park, Eskom’s headquarters.

Eskom is one of the forum’s members alongside other entities either wholly or partially owned by the South African government, namely railway company Transnet, the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA), and communication services provider Telkom.

Soaring copper prices

Eskom boasts a vast network comprising transmission and distribution lines of 33,158km and 391,784km, respectively. They are made of copper, aluminium, and steel, metals that make the power utility a prime target for looters.

Load-shedding, coupled with soaring copper prices due to global supply and demand dynamics, have incentivised wily criminal networks preying on South Africa’s infrastructure, according to the forum, which aims to combat persistent threats to South Africa’s public facilities.

According to recent estimates, South African state agencies incur losses of more than R46.5bn ($2.6bn) per annum as a result of theft and vandalism of public infrastructure, particularly copper cables.

“We want to minimise load-shedding, but we know that because of capacity constraints it [load-shedding] remains a risk to the South African public,” says De Ruyter. “We seek to communicate as transparently as possible when load-shedding will occur in order to allow the public to prepare.

“However, it has come to our attention there are criminal elements who take the load-shedding schedules and, knowing [when] … lines or transformers will be de-energised – and, therefore, safe to handle … they then interfere and steal equipment.”

Eskom also shares infrastructure with Transnet. “It is in our interest to protect the railway line supplying coal to Majuba power station”, Eskom’s second-largest power plant, located in Mpumalanga, De Ruyter said.

Fuel is also tempting

Among the railway utility’s subsidiaries, Transnet Freight Rail (TFR) and Transnet Pipelines were hit the hardest by cable theft and infrastructure vandalism, according to group CEO Portia Derby.

  • In 2017/2018, Transnet reported 1,599 incidents of cable theft. In 2021/2022, Transnet documented 4,356 incidents and lost 1,506km-long cable. This has had a knock-on effect on coal and chrome miners, who rely on Transnet’s rail network for the transportation of 99% of their production.

Transnet also spends R400m a year on clean-up costs due to diesel syphoning from the company’s pipeline at the hands of looters. Fuel thefts culminate in R1bn worth of environmental impact.

Transnet has noticed a spike in fuel theft coinciding with the rises in global prices due to the Ukraine war. “What is increasingly worrying is that the pipeline goes through densely populated areas,” Derby says.

Outsourcing security services

The Transnet CEO says the company has resorted to outsourcing security services to deter theft and vandalism. “That move was important for us because, for the first time, it meant smaller security companies, which are based in townships, would be able to compete,” says Derby.

“The tender is still out and it closes on 22 September, the biggest one is [for] TFR. We’ll see by early next year whether it’s starting to generate the anticipated outcomes that we would like to see,” she adds.

In the first week of September, TFR reported cable thefts that disrupted its North Corridor, which spans Limpopo, Gauteng, Mpumalanga, and Richards Bay in KwaZulu-Natal.

The corridor, which TFR repaired and brought back into operation within 15 hours, is used to transport coal and other commodities, and accounts for 40% of TFR’s freights.

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In one incident, catenary wire and steelwork were stolen, and contact wire was vandalised, said TRF, citing organised crime across the country that has compromised the company’s operations.

‘Near total decimation of rail network’

On the commuter rail side, PRASA acting group CEO Hishaam Emeran says: “It’s no secret that we are limping in providing services.”

Annually, PRASA has reported more than 2,000 incidents of theft and vandalism on its network. “This has led to the near total decimation of our rail network,” he says.

Nearly half 2,300km of signalling cables as well as parts of railway track have been stolen, while substations were damaged, according to Emeran.

Policy response

While addressing the nation last February, President Cyril Ramaphosa said his administration would take “decisive steps” to deal with copper thefts.

The government later in June approved a consultation process led by the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition (the dtic) over measures to deal with illegal trading of scrap metal. The state body revealed in August a draft policy proposal comprising three phases:

  • A six-month export ban on ferrous and non-ferrous waste and scrap
  • The implementation of a permit system for scrap exports
  • Amending existing legislation to blacklist offenders

Members of the Economic Sabotage of Critical Infrastructure Forum have suggested further amendments to the dtic’s proposal during the consultation process, which ended in early September. A final action plan to secure South African facilities has yet to be set out.

The Africa Report

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