A few changes to the Second Hand Goods Act and “we might be able to stem the proliferation of non-ferrous metals [theft]”, the SA Police Service’s Maj-Gen Charles Johnson told members of Parliament’s water affairs and sanitation portfolio committee.
The committee is holding one-day public hearings on vandalism and theft affecting the country’s water infrastructure.
The theft of copper cable, as well as pipes, pumps and other equipment, costs South Africa well over R5 billion a year.
Earlier, the committee heard that copper thieves were being paid as little as R7 a kilogram – in cash – for the metal by unscrupulous dealers, but the damage caused when they stole the cable could amount to millions.
Responding to a question, Johnson – who heads the police’s general crime investigation division – said they were suggesting that payment by scrap dealers to sellers be through the banking system.
“Either electronic funds transfer, or so on. That would assist a lot because currently all that is required from the seller is an identity document. And he or she provides an address but no proof of address.”
Police had found that such addresses often did not exist.
“The ordinary thief who cuts cable, or burns cable, just a few metres of cable, will be deterred because he or she won’t be able to sell because normally they don’t have banking accounts.
“And, if they do, we will be able to trace them… It would be important if it could be made into law that payments go through the banking system.”
Asked how successful the police were when it came to catching copper thieves, Johnson said although they were arresting people for possession of suspected stolen copper, it was often very difficult to prove ownership of the recovered metal.
The cable was often not properly marked, or had been burnt or altered to make identification impossible.
And while the Second Hand Goods Act made buying or being in possession of altered or burnt copper cable an offence, “it is very difficult to prove that someone caught in possession of such changed cable is in actual fact the person that changed it”.
“And we have difficulty with the prosecuting authority… in that regard.”
Johnson said the police were “targeting dealers” in terms of the act, which allowed for stiff sentences of up to 15 years for possession of stolen goods.