How a South African invention stymies thieves
by Dana Valdi

The value of copper is up there with gold, silver and platinum.  Consequently international crime syndicates specialize in digging up copper cable and selling it on around the world.

The disruption to every electrical and communication service caused by the theft costs a country ten times as much as the value of the actual copper. It’s not unheard of for a cable to be replaced one week and stolen again the next.  Calculated globally, we’re talking losses of billions of dollars.

For years any number of strategies have been tried to stop copper cable theft.  The first idea was to bury cable about a metre underground where it was thought it could not be reached.  This merely led to thieves excavating for cable.  Sometimes a thief is electrocuted in the process but this does not deter newcomers from trying their hand at not getting fried. Cable owners have installed alarms and have set armed guards to patrol likely target areas.  But it is impossible for guards to patrol thousands of kilometres of buried cable.

For a small country the gross cost of cable theft is astronomical.  South Africa is struggling to stay on its feet economically. Every month there are about 1000 reported incidents of cable theft across the country, the total disruption costing R5 billion per year.

How they steal it

The criminals’ modus operandi favoured in South Africa is to locate the underground four-core cable that supplies electricity to a sizable town.  Two holes are then dug half a kilometre apart, and down to the level of the cable.  A fire is set at one of the holes.  The flames burn through the cable covering.  The electricity shorts which automatically throws the trip switch in the local electricity sub-station.  This makes it safe for the thieves to use a simple hacksaw to sever the cable where the two holes have been dug.  A standard 4×4 vehicle, usually stolen for the purpose, is attached to one end of the cut cable. After moderate initial resistance, the cable is pulled out of the ground.  The cable covering is later removed – thus dodging the manufacturers’ ruse of applying ownership logos to the cable covering.  If the thieves are working on their own and are not already on assignment to a syndicate, the thick copper core is sold either to scrap metal dealers or directly to international gangs. The copper ends up in newly industrializing countries hungry for natural resources.  China is often named as a destination but it could be any country that will buy stolen goods.

The South African solution

South Africa has just had enough. A solution to foil cable thieves had to be found and after years of research, the country has its own new invention which will halt this global scourge. Using the device raises the cost of laying cable by 5% but the savings obviously far exceed the initial investment. The method was invented by a South African company called Cable Guard.

The device consists of a tough plastic anchor which is clamped onto the outside of the cable at five metre intervals when it is being laid underground.  The result is that a short length of cable with two anchors cannot be pulled out of the ground even using a Caterpillar excavator.  The anchors withstand over six tons of pull before the cable snaps – and this is just at the first anchor. Another still remains in place and the cable is left intact.

Zuma’s job creation promise reduces crime

What about old cable that hasn’t been stolen – yet? Already-laid cable can be retro-fitted with the device.  The process is labour-intensive because holes at five metre intervals have to be dug, and these partly by hand to avoid damage to the cables.

Happily, South Africans need jobs, and the labour market can supply the hands.  Jacob Zuma, in a speech made after his recent landslide presidential election victory, said that one of the jobs he has set himself for 2009 is to create employment for 500,000. With thousands of kilometers of electricity cabling in South Africa that need securing against theft, this particular task on Mr Zuma’s to-do list is neatly cut out for him.

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Dana Valdi, 2009