Metal Theft in South Africa: The Problems

A Global Epidemic of Metal Theft

In the past ten years, metal theft has become an increasing problem in many parts of the world. Its prevalence has been linked to sharp rises in the scrap price of non-ferrous metals, in turn caused by rising demand in rapidly-industrialising countries such as China and India.

Scrap metal is traded internationally, and there is a ready market, especially for copper. A particular feature of metal theft is that the monetary value of the damage caused by its removal from installations is often many times greater than the scrap value of the metal itself. Power station metallic theft, for example, can cause catastrophic blackouts, and there have been cases of fatal injury (sometimes to the thieves themselves) when the metals used for earthing and surge protection are targeted by gangs.

South Africa

South Africa has suffered badly from metal theft, which is estimated to cost the economy over R5 billion per year. Attempts have been made to address the issue; the Copperheads, a specially trained task team, was formed in 2007 to combat the theft of non-ferrous metals in Cape Town. Legislation has been introduced to increase the punishments available to the courts, such as the Second-Hand Goods Act, which came into force in May 2012. It allows for prison sentences of up to ten years for anyone buying illegally-obtained scrap.

Power Station Metal Theft in South Africa

Power station metal theft is a particularly serious problem. The heavy copper rods and cables used for earthing and surge protection are an attractive target for the organised gangs, who export much of the stolen metal; it has been estimated that 3,00 tons of copper are shipped from Cape Town every month, though very little is mined in the country.

Using Technology to Counter Power Station Metal Theft

Eskom, Africa's largest power generating company, until 1994 attempted to mitigate power station metal theft by replacing copper conductor with aluminium, but when aluminium also increased in price (becoming more expensive than copper by 2000) this strategy became less effective. Eskom has also introduced a conductor marking scheme to establish ownership of its material, and is researching the possibility of conductor doping; this approach would involve contaminating aluminium so as to render it worthless to the scrap metal market. 

Preventing the Theft of Surge Protection and Earthing Materials

South African municipalities are currently replacing iron drain covers with concrete slabs to prevent theft, but sadly, there are no cheap alternatives to non-ferrous metals for surge protection and earthing. Inevitably, many installations are in thinly-populated areas where the possibility of detection is low. South Africa is currently experiencing high unemployment amongst young men, for whom metallic theft must seem an enticing alternative to poverty. Metallic theft is likely to remain a problem, which will not be solved without the best possible combination of security and technological innovation.

Check back soon for the second part in this series: Metal Theft in SA: The solutions.

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