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Network industries gather to discuss work that still needs doing to tackle infrastructure sabotage

An image of stolen copper cable

Infrastructure issues hampering the country include copper cable theft

2nd September 2022

By: Tasneem Bulbulia

Senior Contributing Editor Online

     

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While some progress has been made in tackling the high rate of theft and vandalism on critical infrastructure networks across the country, there is still considerable work to be done to ensure the excessive economic toll this takes is mitigated.

This was a key message at the Economic Sabotage of Critical Infrastructure (ESCI) industry roundtable, held on September 2.

The ESCI Forum is led by the group CEOs of State-owned power utility Eskom, passenger rail operator the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA), telecommunications company Telkom and rail operator Transnet Freight Rail (TFR).

During the roundtable, key stakeholders met to discuss possible solutions to the theft and vandalism, as well as progress made in tackling the challenge thus far.

It was noted that the economic toll, experienced across the country, had reached the point where drastic measures were needed, from a policy execution and coordination perspective.

“TFR has experienced an exponential increase in incidents over the last five years, which has resulted in increased tonnage and revenue losses, and increased repair costs.

“Over 1 500 km of cable has been stolen (a 1 096% increase in the length of cable stolen) in the past five years, with a net financial impact of R4.1-billion. We are confident that the coordinated and focused response by the ESCI Forum will yield positive results,” Transnet group CE Portia Derby said.

She noted that no matter how little cable is stolen at a time, an issue arises as metals theft impacts on power supply, leaves trains unable to operate and causes considerable damage to public facilities throughout the country.

Infrastructure issues hampering the country include copper cable theft; electricity poles and battery theft from telecoms base stations; electricity theft and illegal connections; vandalism and malicious damage to property; extortion and bribery; hostage taking; burning of train coaches; and the theft of rail lines. It was noted that these have all increased in recent times, with high costs associated with each.

The economic damage of copper theft alone has been estimated at more than R45-billion a year.

PRASA noted that there were over 2 000 incidents of theft and vandalism on the network between 2019 and this year, leading to near total decimation of the PRASA network. About 1 000 km of rail lines have been cut up and stolen, which is almost half of the 2 300 km network.

Moreover, only 129 of the 590 PRASA stations are functional, while corridors, passengers, and train frequencies are all also operating significantly below capacity.

While some of this is owing to changes in behaviour with lockdown and hybrid working, this decrease is largely attributed to trains not running at optimal levels. The cost of this is about R15-billion to R20-billion, which includes the impact on consumers having to use more expensive transport, vandalism, theft and the recovery cost.

The operator is aiming to address this through bringing back priority corridors, with about ten set to be brought back before the end of this year, it was noted.

“The country’s critical infrastructure is a platform for economic activities and catalyst for growth that needs to be always protected by all.

“Telkom [is experiencing] high levels of the crimes of cable theft and sabotage, battery theft and vandalism of infrastructure. These crimes hamper the provision of basic essential services to industries and communities,” commented Telkom group CEO Serame Taukobong.

He noted that telecommunication services were essential for daily business electronic transactions, educational and entertainment Internet and streaming which are essential for population skills enhancement.

“Therefore, it is incumbent upon every citizen to protect and report infrastructure crimes,” Taukobong added.

Meanwhile, PRASA acting CEO Hishaam Emeran expressed optimism that the ESCI Forum would help to turn the tide on theft and vandalism of infrastructure.

Given the intensity and frequency of these incidents, the industry has come to address this massive issue with a focused and coordinated response.

Since the establishment of the forum in 2020, some progress has been realised, including a specialised multidisciplinary unit to address economic sabotage, extortion at construction sites and vandalism of infrastructure.

The South African Police Service (SAPS) has set up a Task Team on Cable Theft and Damage to Essential Infrastructure.

Cabinet also approved the public consultation process for proposals to restrict the trade of illegally obtained scrap and processed metals.

“Electricity infrastructure is central to the country’s economy, growth and development, therefore every citizen, every business and the whole-of-State has a role to play in stopping the devastation, sabotage and destruction of critical infrastructure.

“Eskom is encouraged by the support it is receiving from the security and law enforcement agencies, including the commitment by the National Prosecuting Authority to commence the prosecution of the many serious crimes that have negatively affected Eskom,” said Eskom group CE André de Ruyter.

The forum has developed a user-friendly app that aims to create awareness on the issue of economic sabotage of critical infrastructure whilst enabling impacted industry players to benefit from insights that are more current.

The public will be able to see an updated view of the incident trends, the shared industry losses as a result of economic sabotage of critical infrastructure, and a heatmap view of the hotspots of crime, while industry stakeholders will be able to log in and securely interact with the analytics at a more granular level and in a more interactive way.

The application is updated through a data process that provides regular updates on incidents.

Speakers emphasised the need to include communities, given that the infrastructure is located where they are and directly impacts them. To this end, engagement is being bolstered, as well as initiatives such as including community policing and other forums, and paying them for their services and intelligence.

The importance of including those living on the margins was also noted.

Also, the need for education and awareness was highlighted. Therefore, the forum will be approaching the Department of Basic Education and higher education institutions to include in the curriculum teaching children to take care of infrastructure, and for adults, to become responsible citizens.

It was noted that the forum has good initiatives to drive in terms of combatting crime, however, what is needed now is focused investigations and prosecutions (with the success rate being low), as well as a push to tackle organised crime.

Edited by Chanel de Bruyn
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor Online

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