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Time to stop the bleeding
Wednesday, 22 August 2012 00:00
Written by Martin Czernowalow
Trade in illegal copper has become a big business in South Africa, and everyone agrees that copper cable theft has become endemic. But what is clearly lacking is a coherent plan and strategy to tackle this crime, which is costing the economy billions.
Unfortunately, government’s foot-dragging in passing legislation to tackle this problem has not helped, and recent statements made by Cabinet ministers indicate that the state has not managed to wrap its head around any effective measures to stem the fi nancial haemorrhage resulting from this scourge.
The facts are indeed horrifying. Earlier this month, in response to Parliamentary questions posed by the Democratic Alliance, it was revealed that state-owned entities Telkom, Eskom, Transnet, the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa, and Metrorail have suffered losses of more than R3.12 billion as a result of copper theft, between April 2006 and December 2011.
This figure does not take into account the subsequent costs to the economy, which suffers further losses in terms of productivity, service delivery, job creation and growth.
How long can government allow this problem to continue unabated? While it continues to sit back and watch as billions of rands leave via the back door, the state would rather go after soft targets – such Gauteng’s motorists – to recoup the billions it spent on the province’s ill-conceived e-tolling system.
Perhaps it would do well to stop, or even minimise, the losses resulting from cable theft, as well as address the issues of irregular and wasteful expenditure across all tiers of government, which amounted to more than R20 billion in the last financial year, according to a public protector’s report.
But nothing is for free and, at the end of the day, the biggest losers from cable theft are the poorest of the poor, and the already over-burdened taxpayer.
That government has no idea, or political will, to tackle copper theft is evident from its actions. It is only earlier this year that the new Second-Hand Goods Act came into law, allowing the state to jail people who steal and trade in stolen copper cables for up to 10 years. Why has it taken so long to enact this piece of legislation?
Why are we still talking about classifying copper cable theft as a priority crime, when it should have been done a long time ago? According to law-makers, this reclassification would ensure that more resources and more experienced personnel are assigned to fighting copper theft. It would also place more responsibility on the police to investigate these crimes.
Instead, government’s reaction to copper theft was most telling during a Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Communications meeting, earlier this year. Committee chairperson Sikhumbuzo Eric Kholwane blasted Telkom for being aware of cable theft, since it has been going on for a long time, but not doing enough to deal with the crime, or to correct the situation after the crime.
This sounds like passing the buck.
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