The South African government plans to ban export of scrap metals to address widespread theft of copper cable and other forms of metal from public infrastructure that has crippled power supply, left trains unable to operate and damaged public facilities in many parts of the country.
Trade, Industry and Competition Minister Ebrahim published proposals in the government gazette on Friday for public comment for a three-week period before the plans are finalised.
The first of three envisaged phases proposes a six-month ban on all export of scarp metal, with future phases including a new, enhanced registration system for scrap buyers and sellers to improve monitoring, policing and law-enforcement as well as limitations on the ports and border posts to be used for trade in scrap metal.
Also suggested are changes to legislation that would make it more difficult for stolen copper and metal to be traded.
The proposals were developed following sustained damage to public infrastructure by criminals stealing millions of rands worth of electricity cables, power pylons, railway tracks, traffic lights and manhole covers, which the Department said had reached crisis levels.
Criminals are targeting public infrastructure that taxpayers have invested in to expand service delivery to communities across the country.
The economic damage of copper theft alone has been estimated at more than R45 billion annually, a statement by the Department said, quoting the findings of research which it had commissioned from an independent company.
Statistics published by national railway regulator Transnet showed that during a single week in April 2022 there were 123 attacks on South Africa's rail infrastructure, including the theft of 39.4 km of copper cable. It is estimated that between 2017 to 2021, the length of cable annually stolen from Transnet's lines increased from 120 km to 724 km, and the number of incidents rose from fewer than 2,000 to almost 4,500.
The repairs to the railway network which had been crippled across the country are estimated to cost billions and take several years, according to transport industry experts.
Theft of electricity transmission cables and pylons have left national electricity supplier Eskom with billions in debt and repeatedly failing infrastructure at power stations, forcing the utility to implement load shedding of up to six hours a day across the country. Trade and industry have suffered, with huge loss to the economy, because of this.
There has also been growing public outrage about the safety risk to communities and especially children when criminals damage and leave behind exposed live electricity cables.
The research found that the export of metal provides a crucial monetisation channel for criminals, and South Africa's ports and borders are not adequately resourced to prevent the export of stolen scrap and semi-finished metal products.
The sheer size of public infrastructure across the country made it necessary to identify additional measures that, together with improved policing, can be effective in protecting public assets in the national interest, the Department said.
The latest proposal is part of a pledge by President Ramaphosa during his State of the Nation Address in February that government would take decisive steps to address the damage to public infrastructure from criminals who steal infrastructure containing metal. They then either disguise its origin and sell the metal to legitimate metal processors in South Africa or sell the metal to intermediaries who export it.