The Criminal Matters Amendment Act comes into force on Tuesday, creating far harsher sentencing and bail conditions for people who damage infrastructure for services such as transport, power, water and communications, The Sunday Times reports.
The law creates a new offence: damaging infrastructure that disrupts the provision of essential services, whether publicly or privately owned.
Though making specific reference to copper theft, the new law also makes provision for people to be charged with tampering with “basic service” infrastructure.
Previously, cable theft was tried as malicious damage to property and incurred minor penalties. There are minimum sentences for first-time copper thieves of three years, and a maximum 30 years for those involved in instigating or causing damage to infrastructure.
Scrapyard employees who can be linked to organising or instructing thieves to steal copper can also be charged. The new law was fast-tracked by the Presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Commission, which includes premiers, members of the cabinet and mayors. It took only a few months to reach the National Assembly.
Replacing stolen copper cable costs Eskom about R2-billion a year. Between July and March, it cost Cape Town R22-million to replace damaged water and sanitation infrastructure, and almost R14-million to repair damaged electricity infrastructure.
Johannesburg loses R3.62-million a year because of traffic lights being stripped of copper wire. It loses about R10-million a year to copper cable theft. Many power and water outages, phone problems, and Metrorail and Gautrain delays are due to cable theft.
The law will prevent alleged copper thieves being granted bail easily or being released with small fines. Instinctif consultant Pietman Roos said copper thieves are often given small fines.
“The new law takes into account not the value of the stolen goods but also the damage to the economy. “A person might steal R50 of copper but the effect on the economy could be R20-million.
“A train can be derailed when cable used in signalling systems is stolen. Factories stop working because of disrupted power supplies,” said Roos. Eskom this year estimated that the country paid R4-billion to replace stolen copper cable.
Labour federation Cosatu cited deaths as a result of cable theft as a motivation for enacting the new law. In Pretoria in February 2011 two trains collided, killing a train driver and injuring many of the 266 passengers. The crash was attributed to a signalling error caused by two 25m copper cables being stolen.
The law has been welcomed by local authorities. “The new legislation is very good news indeed,” said Cape Town councillor JP Smith.
But he said local authorities needed more authority to enforce the Second Hand Goods Act, which can be used to hold scrapyard dealers liable for buying stolen goods.
The law stipulates that scrapyards must keep a register of sellers and their contact details to enable the authorities to trace the origin of the scrap metal. “But many scrapyards get away with very little control,” Smith said.
Engineer Kieron Leeburn, of CBI Electric African Cables, said the industry had set up a working group to standardise the labelling of copper cables to help the police identify stolen property.