Nomvula Mokonyane says he’s guilty of “economic sabotage”, but 23-year-old Thabo* insists he’s just another hard-working South African.
The slim young man is a professional cable thief. His nails are cut short and his hands roughened.
“These hands can trip power on railway lines, dig up a very thick cable, peel it, bundle it and have it ready for sale in three hours,” he says with a grin.
It was cable theft that prompted Mokonyane, the minister of water and sanitation, to blame thieves for water outages that left parts of Gauteng dry for nearly three weeks.
Thabo knows of these thieves but says that’s not his gig.
“Me and my boys specialise in railway-line cable. That heavy, thick one that fills my hands … that’s what we do for a living.”
Sometimes he feels guilty when he sees commuters stranded.
“I feel bad knowing I’m the one who stole the cable but then I say: ‘Everything will soon be back to normal.’ After all, we’re stealing from government and this crime is the only thing we know for a quick buck.”
He considers himself a professional. He began stealing cables when he was 18. ILL-GOTTEN GAINS A police officer stands over copper cables confiscated during a raid. It is estimated that copper theft costs the economy between R10 billion and R20 billion a year
Thabo works with three others. They split their takings between six, though. They must include the man who drives the bakkie and the guard they bribe to look the other way.
“First you must have inside information, meaning a security guard on your side. We monitor guards’ shifts and their movement for days before we hit.
“I normally work with three friends, and the first thing we do is trip the power using a wire thrown up over the overhead lines. Once it blows, we cut open the box for the cable.”
Thabo says sometimes a guard who has been bribed becomes the lookout.
“Once we have cut the ends and pulled the cable from the ground, we haul it into the bushes. Then we sit and peel off the plastic covers. Once the red copper is exposed, we cut it into smaller pieces and bundle it.
“We already have transport ready and an arrangement with the buyer. When we meet him, we weigh the cable to determine the price. Red copper sells for R500/kg and we normally make around R12 000 on an average day.”
That R12 000 is the tip of a very lucrative iceberg. Dr Johan Burger, senior researcher at the Institute of Security Studies, says there are no firm figures for how much cable theft costs the economy each year, but estimates it’s between R10 billion and R20 billion annually.
Thabo says they normally work between 1am and 3am.
“Scrapyard owners don’t buy copper during the day or at their business premises. We arrange to meet somewhere and our motto is that the copper has to be gone by sunrise. We can’t afford to have it in our possession in the morning.”
Thabo lives in Orlando East, Soweto. He steals cables across Soweto. He dropped out of school in Grade 11, four years ago.
“I am not proud of my life today but was forced by circumstances to be what I am. I’m an only child and my mother had no one else to help her. When I dropped out of school, the only jobs I was exposed to were criminal activities. But cable theft is still the one that pays better.”
His boyish face, visible beneath the shadow of a blue cap, is blotchy and dehydrated. His eyes are bloodshot.
“I do smoke nyaope and it’s very addictive. Beside the need to make money and help my unemployed mother, I have to feed my addiction.”
He knows what he’s doing is both illegal and dangerous.
“I am aware of the risks of being electrocuted, getting arrested or being killed by greedy people in this business but I have no other choice.”