Government and citizens have a duty to protect infrastructure from theft and vandalism, Members of Parliament agree. A hotly contested debate took place in the National Assembly yesterday on the impact of theft and vandalism of public infrastructure on the economy. The debate follows a spate of claims of sabotage of critical infrastructure at Eskom, Transnet and Telkom, operations that are the life blood of South Africa’s economic activity.

Making initial remarks on the debate, Democratic Alliance MP Mr Mathew Cuthbert quantified the economic impact of the problem in light of the 177 per cent rise in the theft of Transnet’s cable and the R7 billion that Eskom invests in protecting its infrastructure. Mr Cuthbert also mentioned that the government’s investment in infrastructure is on the decline, meaning that infrastructure is stolen faster than it can be replaced.

Even the South African Police Service, he pointed out, is not in a position to stem the tide, because it’s under-resourced. He recommended the establishment of a hotline to reward those reporting the perpetrators of these criminal acts. The government’s temporary ban on the export of scrap metal is not the solution to the problem, as it threatens the already ailing economy.   

Without infrastructure, no economy can thrive and investment will suffer, said Ms Judy Hermans, an African National Congress MP. In addition, investment in infrastructure projects is not keeping up with domestic demand, she said, and it will be difficult to meet South Africa’s sustainable development goals. Infrastructure development is a crucial part of eradicating inequality, poverty and unemployment, Ms Hermans pointed out.

Infrastructure is more than just an economic imperative, proclaimed Economic Freedom Fighters MP Ms Mathapelo Siwisa, it also a human rights issue. Government appears to be prepared to ensure that mining companies have access to water for their daily operations at the expense of village residents adjacent to them, who go for days without access to drinking water. For these people, she reiterated, sewerage spillages have become common experiences, while the golf courses and resorts that surround them have state-of-the-art water and sanitation infrastructure.

The African Christian Democratic Party’s Mr Kenneth Meshoe opened his participation in the debate by commenting on the R4 billion that it will reportedly cost to fix the rail network. “Now, destitute commuters are forced to use taxis that are more expensive than trains.”

Compounding the problem, at a time when we should be building new infrastructure, “we are instead fixing and rebuilding old, dilapidated infrastructures,” he said. “We appeal to the government to take the job of protecting infrastructure seriously, if our economy is to grow.”

The sad reality is that “we are working backwards. We now have to rebuild what we once had,” remarked the United Democratic Movement’s Mr Nqabayomzi Kwankwa. Nonetheless, he also pointed out that it is sometimes convenient to blame government for the theft and vandalism of public infrastructure when we should “teach our people that public infrastructure is theirs; they must safeguard it, because they paid for it through their taxes”.

The Minister of Police, Mr Bheki Cele, took a hard line saying that it is South Africans themselves who are destroying their own infrastructure. We should not be blaming Telkom for not having efficient telecommunication networks. “We, as communities, we know those who vandalise public infrastructure; they live among us.” We must instead, “report them and throw the book to them and not always blame government when we can play our part in righting this wrong.”   

It is not true that the police are not doing enough. “We are doing our best to fight it,” Mr Cele said. He also referred to the multi-disciplinary unit that has been established, comprising the private security sector, the government and financial intelligence services, the South African Revenue Service, the National Prosecution Authority and border control to deal with this matter head on.

To date, more than 6 000 people allegedly involved in infrastructure theft and vandalism have been arrested and conviction rates are improving. “To date, the National Prosecution Authority has secured 193 convictions out of the 210 cases that came before it. That amounts to 91% conviction rate.”

In addition, these criminals are facing harsh sentences. Recently in KwaZulu-Natal, a copper and metal thief was sentence to 26 years in prison. In Johannesburg, two thieves were sentenced to 12 and 15 years respectively. The police consider infrastructure-related crime as a top priority crime. “We won’t allow criminals to run a parallel government under our watch. That won’t happen. We are on top of this issue as we speak.”

At the heart of this crime is the demand in scrap copper and metal, said the Minister of Trade, Industry and Competition, Mr Ibrahim Patel. The effect on the economy is staggering. “It runs into billions and it has reduced the mining sector’s daily activity by R130 million.”

In his view, it’s impossible to expect the police to protect critical infrastructure alone. Therefore, his department has drawn up a plan to focus on logistics and distribution networks in ports and determine if copper and metal traders keep a register of their trades. This effort is part of steps to address the illegal trade in various metals, as is the moratorium on trade in used copper and metal, contrary to what many allege is the reason for the ban, Mr Patel said.

In addition to these registration and reporting mechanisms, the Department of Trade and Industry has also introduced a policy to coordinate the trade in these products within the Southern African Development Community. In addition to that, he continued, the department intends to draft legislation that will prohibit the use of cash when dealing in scrap metals. “The department will consider all proposals tendered in this debate to protect critical infrastructure meant to enhance economic growth and service delivery.”

Abel Mputing

2 September 2022