JOHANNESBURG — South African investigators say cable theft caused January’s passenger train derailment near the capital, Pretoria - injuring about 200 people. About 50 meters of electrical cables were stolen, shutting down the railway's automated signal system. Cable theft is estimated to cost more than a half billion dollars, to the South African economy every year. Each electrical, telecommunications or transport cable stolen can shut down economic activity in a vast area.
Eunice Sethabakgomo's neighborhood could be a perfect ad for the government's efforts to help the poor since the fall of apartheid: neat rows of little brick houses line the paved streets in this modern looking village outside of Johannesburg. Everything works well here; except for the street lights.
“We have street lights, but they're no longer working. Since 2010, they stole the cables," complained Sethabakgomo. "It is a big problem, especially when the place is dark, that's when crime happens”
A couple of kilometers away, it's a different world, but with the same problem. Trevor D'Oliveira owns Avianto, a sprawling complex that specializes in Italian-themed weddings for the Johannesburg upper class. At all times, a camera is aimed at the electricity box that services the complex to try to prevent cable theft.
“We've had this cable stolen three times in the last seven years," said D'Oliveira. "Then it takes a day of two for being repaired, and during that time the generator has to run. To run that generator for a day is probably 3000 rands worth [$340] of diesel. Yet the amount of money the guys get for that piece of cable is probably just a couple hundred rands [$22].”
Cable theft is a massive problem throughout South Africa. Most affected are the big agencies that provide the backbone of the South African economy: the telecommunications agency Telkom, the transport agency Transnet, and the electric company, Eskom.
Maboe Maphaka, senior manager at Eskom, estimates that cable theft costs his company $45 million a year - notwithstanding the damage to its image. It costs the consumer quite a bit of money from power surges which can damage all equipment - computers, TVs, appliances - plugged in at the time.
“When a customer comes down to Eskom to claim for a fridge that has burnt down, and Eskom comes back and say 'look, we can't pay you for this because of this, this and that, as customer you are aggrieved', and then Eskom becomes this uncaring organization," said Maphaka.
Five years ago, the city of Cape Town created a special unit nicknamed the Copperheads, to fight metal cable theft. Niels Arendse, its spokesperson, says they arrest on average 130 to 140 people every year.
But he says the courts are not taking this crime seriously enough. In 2009 for example, his organization arrested 20 people from an organized group that was conspiring to steal cables. But they only received a warning from the courts.
The South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry is lobbying for cable theft to be classified as economic sabotage, which would lead to tougher punishment for the culprits.
Neren Rau, the CEO of the chamber, says the move is essential to fight a crime that can slow down the economy: a cable stolen can mean businesses shut down for a day for lack of electricity, cut off internet or phone, trains stuck in a station. Hence, Rau says, there is a disconnect between the relatively low value of the copper stolen and its global implication for businesses.
“Sadly, at the lowest level of theft, it's merely criminals that are trying to put food on the table," said Rau. "That's why in the past we've had difficulty prosecuting them, there was a lot of sympathy. But now that we're looking at the broad implication - we've had the derailment in Pretoria - it's a problem of the economy as a whole.”
The South African Chamber of Commerce is currently leading a study to evaluate the total cost to the economy. Neren Rau says it might be even higher than the current estimate of a half billion dollars a year.