Metal thieves crippling S. Africa

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PRETORIA, South Africa Its vast deposits of gold and platinum helped turn South Africa into the continent’s most developed nation, but the country’s hottest new metal export risks sending the economy in reverse.

Cities are being brought to their knees by unprecedented pilfering of copper and aluminum cables, which has caused extensive blackouts and power cuts. Organized gangs plunder miles of the country’s electricity and telephone lines to sell abroad as scrap.

Officials believe that up to 100 miles of cables may be stolen every year, destined for markets such as China and India, where booming economies have created insatiable demand for copper and aluminum.

The thieves generally work by night, armed with trucks, winches, industrial cutting machines and tractors to flatten the pylons and poles that carry their booty.

The result has been entire suburbs plunged into darkness, thousands of train passengers stranded and frequent chaos on the roads as traffic lights fail.

Backed by a network of unscrupulous dealers who smelt their spoils, many gangs are also stealing water meters, faucets and even ladders, said Cape Town city official Pieter van Dalen, one of a 15-member “cable-theft task team” set up to fight the problem.

Such is the economic damage of the new “gold rush” that last week Cape Town Mayor Helen Zille held a crisis meeting with scrap-metal merchants.

“Nobody will invest in a city if you can’t rely on something as basic as an electricity supply,” she said. “The entire infrastructure, from sewerage substations to electricity generating points, is being vandalized for the sake of a few bucks.”

In fact, the stakes are much higher than a few bucks.

The Western Cape Investment and Trade Promotion Agency estimates that the province exported $10.7 million worth of copper to China last year no easy feat for an area that has no copper mines.

South Africa spends $70 million on replacing stolen cables every year, while the cost to firms whose power has been cut or phone lines stolen is perhaps 10 times as much.

The massive increase in cable thefts in the past year is in large part because the price of copper has tripled over the same period.

For inexperienced thieves, though, the risks are high. In January 2006, two men were electrocuted, apparently after trying to steal cable from an electricity substation.

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