Until government is able to upgrade its water infrastructure, amend punitive laws for theft of State property and implement traceability laws for scrap metal, the routine theft of government-owned pipes, substation components, transformers and other water-related infrastructure, which is sold as scrap metal, will continue, says Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Water and Sanitation chairperson, Mlungisi Johnson.
Johnson tells Engineering News that not all the necessary laws and institutions are in place to prevent the theft of and damage to infrastructure, stating that the portfolio committee is working closely with the South African Police Service (SAPS) to develop amendments to current legislation, which Johnson says will be drafted and released by the SAPS and the Justice Portfolio Committee for public comment while the current Parliament is in office.
Johnson thinks that a serious legislative change needs to be enacted to ensure that infrastructure theft is no longer regarded as petty theft. He believes much severer penalties should be inflicted on those who commit “economic sabotage”, and proposes that people stealing or damaging infrastructure should be liable to a minimum of 15 years imprisonment.
Further, he identifies scrap metal companies as key role-players in the scrap metal theft market, as they are the link in the supply chain between scrap metal thieves and a global demand for cheap metal, particularly from East Asia.
To regulate the currently undercontrolled flow of metal, particularly copper, Johnson says, people in possession of scrap metal must be able to account for its origins.
He explains that scrap metal must be made traceable in the same way that diamonds or cattle are and scrap metal companies must also be able to identify the source and prove the legitimacy of the scrap metal in their possession.
Johnson tells Engineering News that the Department of Water and Sanitation, together with independent water utilities, have started identifying all the key points and methods of implementation needed to upgrade security.
He cites two instances of major infrastructure theft: at Palmiet pumpstation, in Gauteng, where components of the substation were stolen, and at Madibeng municipality, in the North West, where transformers were stolen.
Johnson states that the scrap metal is sold off for as little as R7/kg, while the damage can amount to millions of rands.
Infrastructure theft is most prevalent in urban areas and communities, schools, hospitals and the elderly are most affected by vandalism, he concludes.