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Picture: EDUARDO LEAL/BLOOMBERG
Picture: EDUARDO LEAL/BLOOMBERG

Parliament has been called on to urgently discuss and prioritise tackling metal infrastructure theft, which threatens to cripple the economy.

The theft of metal, which is largely being driven by growing global demand for copper scrap, in part due to tight supplies and low inventories pushing prices to record highs, has become a huge headache for the state. Eskom’s infrastructure is being routinely targeted by thieves and saboteurs, which further limits its capacity to keep the lights on.

As government scrambles for solutions, DA MP Mat Cuthbert has written a letter to National Assembly speaker Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula requesting that she schedule an urgent debate on the crisis and economic impact.

“Every day, we see reports in the media of our public infrastructure lying in ruins, or at worst entirely lifted from the site in which it was located. The export economy, local government service delivery and public transportation are most severely affected by this scourge,” Cuthbert said.  

He highlighted estimates by the Minerals Council SA that coal, iron ore and chrome companies missed out on about R35bn last year alone from contracted volumes that could not reach ports because of the failing rail network.

“To compound the regular blackouts which businesses and households are subjected to by Eskom, the assault on municipal electrical infrastructure cripples service delivery, leaves residents more susceptible to crime and strangles local economic development,” Cuthbert 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.

“The available evidence proves just how severe the impact of theft and vandalism of our electricity, rail and municipal infrastructure is,” Cuthbert said.  

He added that in light of the revelation last week by public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan that cable theft at the Hendrina Power Station contributed towards SA being moved to stage 4 electricity blackouts, and daily reports emerging of further incidents of cable and other electricity infrastructure, and noting that blackouts costs the economy about R500mn per stage per day, “it is absolute necessary that the theft and vandalism of public infrastructure is urgently brought before the assembly for debate.”

Gordhan recently called for a temporary prohibition on the export of scrap metal, saying allowing such shipments is seriously damaging public infrastructure and the economy. 

In his budget vote speech last week, trade, industry & competition minister Ebrahim Patel said building an enabling environment for industrialisation requires securing key network infrastructure, such as energy and logistics, and protecting the electrical grid and rail network from the continued threat of scrap metal syndicates.

He said by the end of July, his department will have developed and tabled a draft policy on scrap metal, which will introduce a blend of domestic and export measures to address illegal trade in copper cable and scrap metal.

phakathib@businesslive.co.za

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