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Picture: 123RF/JAGER
Picture: 123RF/JAGER

As metal theft worsens, transport minister Fikile Mbalula says government efforts to boost security and protect critical rail infrastructure from thieves and vandals are gaining traction.

The theft of metal, which is in part driven by a surging global demand for copper scrap largely due to tight supplies and low inventories pushing prices to record highs, has become a huge headache for the state and a serious threat to economic recovery.

In his budget vote speech in parliament on Wednesday, Mbalula said the implementation of security interventions is a priority, and the Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa), which is responsible for delivering commuter rail services — a key ingredient to boost productivity and stimulate economic growth — has employed just over 3,000 security personnel to guard its network.

Prasa is also constructing walls in certain sections of the rail network and fencing in others to contain what has historically been an open network vulnerable to theft, vandalism and encroachment of informal settlements, the minister said.  

With high demand and ready markets for scrap, railway lines, electricity pylons and road barriers are among the infrastructure items that are targeted by syndicates, which then sell to local dealers or smuggle the stolen metal to overseas markets as scrap.

Freight rail operator Transnet, partially state-owned telecom operator Telkom and power utility Eskom estimate that thieves and vandals cost them a total of R7bn a year, with the knock-on damage to the broader economy amounting to about R187bn annually.

While Mbalula did not specify how much the state would spend to boost security to curb theft of rail infrastructure, he said Prasa’s overall budget allocation will increase from R12.6bn in 2022/23 to R13.5bn in 20224/25. Overall, over the medium term the department of transport’s total planned expenditure for all its programmes in the sector including upgrading road infrastructure will increase at an average annual rate of 7.7% from R69.1bn in 2022/23 to R81.6bn in 2024/25.

Mbalula said the allocation to Prasa will be channelled towards refurbishment of coaches, rolling stock fleet renewal programme, signalling and other capital projects which includes security of the rail infrastructure. The agency recorded damage in excess of R1.2bn over the last two years due to metal infrastructure theft.

“Our public transport infrastructure is in a major state of disrepair because of theft and vandalism that has crippled our rail recovery interventions...their [criminals’] conduct not only negatively affects workers who rely on this mode to get to work, but also cripples economic activity that relies on the railways. It is for that reason we call this kind of criminality economic sabotage, which must attract the harshest penalty permissible in law,” Mbalula said.

He reiterated his call for the ban of scrap metal exports arguing that allowing such shipments provide a “perverse incentive for this criminality”. 

Public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan also recently called for a temporary prohibition on the export of scrap metal.

Trade, industry & competition minister Ebrahim Patel previously stated that the government has commissioned research on what further measures can be put in place to curb metal theft. He said some industry players have made a strong case for a ban on scrap metal exports, but such measures should consider the broader effect on legitimate scrap recyclers.

According to the Budget Review tabled in parliament in February, making it mandatory for all metal traders to get licences and prevent them from dealing in cash — so there is a paper trail — could be a step in combating theft and the illegal trade in cables.

The government could also introduce rules to make it mandatory for traders to conduct due diligence on their customers and track the origin of products.

phakathib@businesslive.co.za

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