For decades, cable theft has disrupted infrastructure across South Africa and a problem that pervades the entire supply chain. Here, Ian Loudon, international sales and marketing manager at remote surveillance specialist Omniflex, explains how new cable alarm technologies are making life difficult for criminals and giving companies hope.
In November 2020, Nasdaq reported: “When South Africa closed large parts of its economic and transport network during its COVID-19 lockdown, organized, sometimes armed gangs moved into its crumbling stations to steal the valuable copper from the pipes. Now, more than two months after that lockdown ended, the mass transit system that millions of commuters rely on is barely operating. “
Private security company
Despite this recent incident, cable theft is not a new phenomenon in South Africa
Despite this recent incident, cable theft is not a new phenomenon in South Africa. In 2001, SABC TV aired a story about two members of a private security company who works for Telkom, a major telecommunications provider. In this segment, the two guards working in Amanzimtoti on the south coast of KwaZulu-Natal set out to investigate a nearby alarm that has been triggered.
You reach a telecommunications closet and discover that it has been compromised. The copper wire is cut and the telephone receivers are scattered across the floor. They continued to search the area in the dark when one of the guards discovered the problem: 500 meters of copper wire had been torn out. In their hurry, the thieves dropped their loot and fled.
Widespread cable theft
If they got away, they would have melted the cable to remove the plastic insulation and sold the copper to a local scrap dealer for about 900 rand, about $ 50. For the company whose infrastructure has been compromised, it can cost ten times that amount to replace and repair critical infrastructure.
The disappointing lesson from this story is that two decades after this incident, the country is still facing widespread cable theft, whether it is copper cables from mines, pipelines, railways, telecommunications or electricity utilities. In fact, the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry estimates that cable theft costs the economy between R5 and R7 billion a year. The answer to the problem needs to go beyond what companies are doing.
Detect power failure
Most companies are already investing in video surveillance, fences, barriers, and even patrol officers, but that’s not enough. Take the mining sector, for example. These locations can be huge, stretching dozens of kilometers – it’s just not cost-effective to install enough fences or employ enough guards or cameramen. Over the past few years, as surveillance technology has improved, the company has made increasing use of cable alarms that detect when a power failure is occurring.
The idea is that if you can spot a power failure, you can tell if the cable has been cut
The idea is that if you can spot a power failure, you can tell if the cable has been cut. The problem, however, is: how do you tell the difference between a situation where a cable has been cut on purpose and a real power outage? Power outages in South Africa are an ongoing problem. The country has been struggling with an energy deficit since the end of 2005, which led to power outages of around 6,000 MW in 2019.
Remote terminal units
Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd., the company that generates around 95 percent of South African electricity, has already warned of further blackouts as the company works on repairs to its power plants. According to a statement on the company’s website, “Eskom spends about R2 billion a year replacing stolen copper cables.” The result is that criminals are taking advantage of the power loopholes to steal cables and timing their robberies against published load shedding plans.
The basic alarms used to detect a power failure do not detect theft as they register a false positive during a power failure. By the time the power is restored, the deed is done and the criminals got away with the cable. The good news is that recent breakthroughs in cable monitoring technology are helping to address this very issue. New alarms on the market now combine sophisticated GSM based surveillance systems that use battery operated remote terminal units.
Legitimate supply chain
Unlike the base alarms that look for the presence or absence of power, these new systems monitor whether the cable circuit is in an open or closed state. In the event of a power failure, the device continues to run on battery power and can detect whether a cable has been cut. A priority SMS notification is immediately sent to the site manager so that he can prevent an ongoing robbery.
In addition to opportunistic theft by petty criminals, copper cable theft is a bigger problem
Aside from opportunistic theft by petty criminals, copper cable theft is a major problem along the entire supply chain in South Africa. In recent years, the combination of unscrupulous scrap dealers, the alleged involvement of large scrap processing companies and lax penalties has resulted in much of the stolen copper being recovered got into the legitimate supply chain. However, recent legislative changes have tried to take a tougher stance on copper theft.
Alarm monitoring technology
According to the Western Cape Government, “the Criminal Matters Amendment Act regulates bail and minimum offenses for material infrastructure-related crimes.” The law, which went into effect in 2018, recommends cable theft convictions with the minimum sentence for first offenders are three years old and for those involved in inciting or damaging the infrastructure, the maximum sentence is thirty years. It seems to be working too.
In January 2021, the South African reported that a Johannesburg man had been sentenced to eight years in prison for cable theft in Turffontein. While the longer term outlook for the industry is positive, the best advice for companies looking to alleviate the problem of cable theft in the near future is to invest in the latest cable theft alarm monitoring technology to address the problem and make life difficult for criminals.