For decades cable theft has caused disruption to infrastructure across South Africa, and an issue that permeates the whole supply chain. Here, Ian Loudon, international sales and marketing manager at remote monitoring specialist Omniflex, explains how new cable-alarm technology is making life difficult for criminals and giving hope to businesses.
In November 2020, Nasdaq reported that, “When South Africa shut large parts of its economy and transport network during its COVID-19 lockdown, organised, sometimes armed, gangs moved into its crumbling stations to steal the valuable copper from the lines. Now, more than two months after that lockdown ended, the commuter rail system, relied on by millions of commuters, is barely operational.”
Despite this most recent incident, cable theft is not a new phenomenon to sweep South Africa. In 2001, SABC TV broadcast a story following two members of a private security firm working for Telkom, a major telecoms provider. In the segment, the two guards, working in Amanzimtoti on the south coast of KwaZulu-Natal, head out to investigate a nearby alarm that has been triggered.
They reach a telecoms cabinet and discover that it has been compromised, with the copper cable cut and telephone handsets strewn across the ground. In the dark, they continue to search the area when one of the guards discovers the problem: 500 metres of copper wire has been ripped out.
In their haste, the thieves have dropped their loot and fled. Had they managed to get away, they would have melted the cable to remove the plastic insulation and sold the copper to a local scrap dealer for around 900 Rand, about $50 US dollars. For the company whose infrastructure has been compromised, it may cost ten times that amount to replace and repair the critical infrastructure.
The disappointing takeaway from this story is that two decades on from this incident the country still faces widespread cable theft, whether it’s copper cables from mines, pipelines, railways, telecoms or electrical utilities. In fact, the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry estimates that cable theft costs the economy between R5–7 billion a year.
The answer to the problem must go further than the existing measures used by companies. Most businesses already invest in CCTV, fences, barriers and even patrol guards, but this is not enough.
Take the mining sector, for example. These sites can be vast, spanning dozens of kilometres — it’s simply not cost effective to install enough fences or employ enough guards or camera operators.
As monitoring technology gets better, we’ve seen site managers increasingly use cable alarms in recent years that detect when a power failure occurs. The idea is that, if you can detect a power failure, you can detect whether the cable has been cut. The problem is though: how do you distinguish the difference between a situation where a cable has been cut intentionally and a genuine power outage?
Power outages in South Africa are an ongoing problem, with the country contending with an energy deficit since late 2005, leading to around 6,000 MW of power cuts in 2019. Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd., the company that generates around 95 per cent of South Africa’s power has already warned of further blackouts as the company works to carry out repairs to its power plants. According to a statement on the company’s website, “Eskom spends in the region of R2 billion a year replacing stolen copper cables.”
The result is that criminals take advantage of the gaps in power to steal cable, timing their robberies to coincide with the published load shedding schedules. The basic alarms used to detect power outage won’t recognise the theft because they register a false-positive during a power cut. By the time the power comes back on, the deed has been done and the criminals have gotten away with the cable.
The good news is that recent breakthroughs in cable monitoring technology are helping tackle just this problem. New alarms on the market now combine sophisticated GSM-based monitoring systems that use battery powered remote terminal units. Unlike the basic alarms that look for the presence or absence of power, these new systems monitor whether the cable circuit is in an open or closed state.
In the event of a power outage, the unit continues to run on battery power and can detect if a cable has been cut, sending a priority SMS alert to the site manager immediately, giving them a fighting chance to prevent a robbery in progress.
A larger problem
Beyond the opportunistic theft carried out by petty criminals, the theft of copper cables forms a wider problem across the supply chain in South Africa. In recent years, the combination of unscrupulous scrap dealers, the alleged involvement of large scrap processing companies and lax penalties meant that much of the stolen copper ended up back in the legitimate supply chain.
However, recent changes in the law have sought to take a tougher stance on copper theft. According to the Western Cape Government, “The Criminal Matters Amendment Act, regulates bail and imposes minimum offences for essential infrastructure-related offences.”
The act, which came into effect in 2018, recommends sentencing for cable theft, with the minimum sentence for first-time offenders being three years and for those who are involved in instigating or causing damage to infrastructure, the maximum sentence is thirty years.
It seems to be working too. In January 2021, the South African reported that a Johannesburg man was sentenced to eight years behind bars for cable theft in Turffontein.
While the longer-term outlook is a positive one for industry, the best advice for businesses seeking to alleviate the problem of cable theft in the immediate future is to invest in the latest cable-theft alarm monitoring technology to tackle the problem and make life difficult for criminals.