“Unemployed and hungry” criminals plague Telkom

Sepadi Nkadimeng, executive for corporate security and investigations at Telkom, says infrastructure vandalism is getting out of hand and wants the government to create legislation and special courts to combat the crisis.

He explained that new trends, like stealing copper cabling out of traffic lights, were rising because “hungry” unemployed people would take any opportunity to steal infrastructure to resell it.

“Infrastructure vandalism is actually getting out of hand. Though we’re trying to manage it from our side it is now attacking the entire country, no longer just certain individual entities like ourselves,” TimesLive quoted Nkadimeng as saying.

“We’re seeing new trends coming on board, like stealing cables out of robots, because we have a lot of people who are hungry, who are not working, who will take any opportunity to steal cable and other infrastructure and resell it at a scrapyard.”

“It’s no longer just syndicates, ordinary people are now attacking our infrastructure because they think that’s how they can make a quick buck,” he added.

Telkom has been working with the South African Police Service and the Hawks to nail thieves targeting its 7,500+ towers nationwide.

However, it isn’t happy with the number of paroled suspects and wants the government to make changes.

This includes the creation of special courts to handle critical infrastructure cases. In Telkom’s experience, culprits are eventually sentenced, often after as many as 21 court appearances.

Nkadimeng’s requests to government come after Telkom revealed that 3,003 suspects were successfully apprehended for cable theft and infrastructure vandalism at its facilities between July 2017 and December 2023.

Copper cabling is highly-targeted by criminal syndicates and opportunists as it carries a high price.

The mobile operator said it has significantly reduced infrastructure-related crime at its towers and facilities.

Additionally, cases were opened against 2,549 individuals, which are being monitored by Telkom and key role players with whom it collaborates.

“Supporting the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), our team of investigators attend every court appearance of (the) accused, also testifying and providing evidence as required,” Telkom said.

“South Africa’s courts have taken a zero-tolerance approach to cable theft and infrastructure vandalism. Extremely tough jail sentences have been imposed on convicted offenders.”

It noted a significant bust through its prosecution of a major cable theft syndicate in the Western Cape in 2023.

“During the trial, a court heard that the syndicate orchestrated its operations by utilising rented vehicles to steal overhead copper cables from Telkom, Eskom and Transnet facilities across the country and then transported them to a scrap metal dealer in Germiston, Gauteng,” Telkom said.

The syndicate comprised five people who were convicted and sentenced for theft, racketeering and money laundering. They received sentences ranging from 18 to 83 years imprisonment.

Telkom also listed several other noteworthy busts made between March and November 2023.

Infrastructure vandalism isn’t specific to network operators in South Africa.

In April 2019, President Cyril Ramaphosa unveiled new Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) train sets that he said will ensure “commuters are on time and safe”.

However, the Prasa network was looted and damaged heavily during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Criminals destroyed South Africa’s railway system in many parts of the country, including stealing tracks and cables and gutting train stations.

Railway tracks stolen
Railway tracks stolen

Rail journalist David Williams estimated that around two-thirds of the above-ground electrical cable network of 3,000km had been stolen or damaged.

This meant that 89% of Prasa’s network in Gauteng was out of order, while 70% of KwaZulu-Natal’s railway network was dysfunctional.

The situation was slightly better in the Western Cape, with 30% of the network being inoperational.

According to engineers who consulted with Williams on the damage, it could cost around R500,000 to fix every kilometre of the damaged network.

Photographer David Edwards shared photos detailing the extent of the damage in Gauteng.

Although government has rebuilt some of the looted infrastructure, bringing South Africa’s gutted rail routes back to a limp has proven challenging.

In addition to Transnet’s woes, Prasa’s recently relaunched Shosholoza Meyl had its first trip disrupted by cable theft.

A later journey experienced a mechanical fault, forcing South Africa’s passenger rail agency to provide buses so travellers could complete their journeys.

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“Unemployed and hungry” criminals plague Telkom