CityPress - - News - POLOKO TAU poloko.tau@city­ * Not his real name

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.”


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