While metal is considered a valuable natural resource, the increase of metal theft incidence costs municipalities millions to replace. The City of Cape Town is now clamping down on metal theft criminals and is asserting the strongest judicial mechanisms to ensure that suspects are not able to continue their activity.
In the latest incident, police arrested a 43 year old man in Mannenberg on suspicion of being a habitual cable thief. The suspect, who had left 23 meters of stolen insulated electric copper cable and a wire cutter at a home in the area, was apprehended by police following a tip-off from residents.
Mayoral committee member for Safety and Security for the City of Cape Town, Alderman JP Smith explained that the City established the Metals Theft Unit, which is commonly known as the ‘Copperheads’, a few years ago when police presence did not curtail copper theft.
“Driving around doing police patrolling is not going to ensure that copper thieves are caught. You need to have a specialized unit that understands the nature of the problem and that pursues thieves with a focus on understanding what their tools look like and where the hot-spots are,” Smith noted.
He said that a unit of this nature should essentially have links to the electricity and transport departments so as to ensure that all relevant sectors are monitored.
Smith said that while arrests are being made, it has become apparent that the same perpetrators are being arrested without any recourse, since the courts do not consider copper theft in the most serious terms.
He further noted that the inconvenience that results from such criminal activity for community members is completely unacceptable.
“The metal thieves steal the essential parts of infrastructure; that is required to transmit electricity to residents, the mechanisms without which trains are rendered ineffective, and fencing that is meant to protect electrical substations.”
Smith said that Eskom recently used Section 18 of the Criminal Matters Amendment Act when three suspects were successfully convicted and sentenced to three, five, and fifteen years.
“That means that if you tamper with or damage essential infrastructure then you can be imprisoned for up to 30 years,” he said.
Smith explained that the incident with the 45 year old suspect is the first case of its kind in which the City will cite the Section 18 Amendment Act.
“We are desperate to see it stick, because we have seen people walk away with limited penalties and are soon perpetrating the same crimes. We want to send out the message that the new legislative amendments will nail you if you are caught.”
The City has adopted a specific strategy aimed at apprehending metal theft criminals; the Strategic Information Management Service (SIMS), which is a crime intelligence desk that assists in gathering information, of which metal theft is one of the categories.
In addition to information received from the public, the unit will pay informants to provide valuable information relating to metal theft within the city.
In order to ensure prosecution, the unit will require the assistance of electricity officials who will need to confirm in court that the metal belongs to them.
Smith further explained that while the unit will work toward apprehending thieves, it is also working toward pursuing buyers of the stolen metal, who are regulated by the Second Hand Goods Act, which is currently only enforceable by the SAPS.
He said that the City has made attempts in recent years to gain access to the Act, which stipulates that metal buyers have to keep a record of who they purchased the metal from, where that individual resides, provide a copy of their ID, and catalogue all their metal.
“With a stroke of the pen the national minister can expand the powers of the Act to the City law enforcement and Metro Police across the country. Hopefully within the next few months we will be able to enforce the act,” he continued.
Smith further noted that while the Metal Theft Unit will profile metal theft criminals, the issue of metal theft should not be confined to the specialized unit, but that the South African Police Service (SAPS) and local police should all be on the lookout for possible suspects.
He also urged community members to come forward with any information that would assist in apprehending metal thieves.
“I [encourage] more people to speak up against metal thieves who terrorise them,” Smith said.