Law tough on illegal metal trade

Ocean View and Muizenberg have both been identified as hot spots for metal theft and illegal traders.

The two far south suburbs are on the list with Bonteheuwel, Khayelitsha, Mitchell’s Plain and Kraaifontein.

The Metals Theft Unit, or Copperheads as they are commonly known, was first introduced in 2007 to help address an increase in cable and metal theft at City facilities.

Over the past decade, they have had to cast their net wider given the scale of the problem – in spite of their limited powers.

However, earlier this year, the National Police Minister extended the powers of law enforcement officers to be able to enforce the Second-Hand Goods Act – previously the preserve of the South African Police Service.

This means that officers can now execute search warrants on properties, conduct search and seizure operations, and seal off premises at which second-hand goods are found in order to prevent a person from conducting business in contravention of the Act.

Fresh off their haul of more than two tons of overhead copper cable in the last month, staff with the City’s Metals Theft Unit finalised training in the legislation that they are now empowered to enforce just last week.

“Cable theft continues to be a challenge and often the same suspects are arrested time and again,” said the City’s mayoral committee member for safety and security; and social services, JP Smith.

“Section 18 of the Criminal Matters Amendment Act of 2015 has given us some hope, because it allows for sentences of up to 30 years for people convicted of tampering with or damaging essential infrastructure.” He said that the additional powers under the Second-Hand Goods Amendment Act would now also allow City staff to act more decisively against scrap dealers.

In the first half of this year, the Copperheads conducted 787 inspections of scrapyards and bucket shops and made 33 arrests. They confiscated 139kg of brass, 21kg of heavy steel and 172m of copper streetlight cable.

Bucket shops are informal scrapyards normally operated from residential properties or containers and derived their name from the buckets that informal scrap dealers originally used to weigh metal.

In addition to their daily operations, the Unit also provides protection services to other City departments when they are required to install or maintain infrastructure and services in volatile or high-risk areas.

“Metal theft is big business for some and a means for a quick fix for others. Either way, the City and others like Metrorail and Eskom are constantly targeted, often resulting in great inconvenience to communities and commuters. We’ve already started using alternative materials where possible to deter theft of City infrastructure, but we’re still counting the cost. The Copperheads are doing good work, but again we are dealing with a problem that is not solved through enforcement alone,” said Mr Smith.

The City calls on community members to provide information or tips about metal theft or unscrupulous scrap dealers, so that those responsible can be prosecuted.

The Metals Theft Unit can be contacted on 0800 222 771.