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Metal Boom Spurs Cape Town Crime as Statues, Rail Tracks Vanish

Nasreen Seria

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useover="return escape( popwSearchNews( this ))" href="">Robert Waterwitch on the sidewalk of a shopping precinct after the two South African anti-apartheid guerillas were killed in a 1989 bomb blast.

The 600-kilogram figures (1,320 pounds) were snatched by thieves this month, and found five days later in a scrap yard in the suburb of Bonteheuwel. Police said they were sold for less than 10,000 rand ($1,247), or 3 percent of their original cost.

Record copper and steel prices are fueling a South African crime wave that's targeted monuments, rail tracks, street lights and cables. With 3,000 unlicensed scrap-metal dealers in Cape Town alone, politicians plan to regulate the industry while companies turn to advertising to dissuade robbers.

``It's distressing for the community and the family,'' said Shirley Gunn, commander of the military unit of the ruling African National Congress to which Williams and Waterwitch belonged. ``These memorials were there to remind us of these young people who fought tirelessly against oppression.''

Telkom South Africa Ltd. reported losses of $108 million from stolen copper cables in the 10 months through January. Telkom began a television campaign this month showing thieves yanking cables from telephones used by nurses and teachers.

Cable theft almost doubled in the 12 months through March 2007 and the impact, including lost output, on Africa's biggest economy may be 10 times the 228 million-rand cost of replacing the wiring, said Lorenda Nel, project manager at Johannesburg-based Business Against Crime.

Drug Abuse

Pieter van Dalen, 42, an elected Cape Town city councilor, arrested 10 men for stealing the freedom-fighter statues from Athlone shortly after the remnants were found. He set up a unit called the Copperheads last year to catch thieves after power and telephone cables were stolen near his home in Kuils River. Now, he patrols the streets every night.

The head of the syndicate arrested for the theft of the freedom-fighter statues was renting out horse-and-carts for 100 rand a day, and pick-up vans for 200 rand, to scrap collectors.

``They look for scrap and will steal anything,'' Van Dalen said. ``Most of the guys we catch are on drugs, or on their way to buy drugs.''

He said that drug abuse, particularly of methamphetamine, known locally as Tik, is spurring theft among teenagers on the Cape Flats, a low-income urban sprawl that includes the townships of Khayelitsha and Mitchell's Plain.

Catching Snakes

Eskom Holdings Ltd., the state-owned power utility, reported a 72 percent surge in theft last year, with 310 kilometers (193 miles) of cables stolen, according to spokesman Andrew Etzinger.

Copper for delivery in three months on the London Metal Exchange traded at $8,472 a metric ton on March 27. The metal has jumped 30 percent this year.

Eskom's television campaign refers to thieves as izinyoka, a Zulu word meaning snakes, and shows men with yellow reptilian eyes cutting power to a hospital patient on life support.

``Help Eskom put these izinyoka where they belong: in a hole,'' the advertisement ends.

The problem is not a new one. In 1999, a bronze arch of leaping impala antelopes donated to the City of Johannesburg by Harry Oppenheimer, whose family founded Anglo American Plc, was sawn off at its pedestal by thieves. This time, police say the robberies are out of control.

The metal is sold to scrap yards where it is baled and shipped to China and India, said Van Dalen.

`Rocket Scientist'

``One of these scrap metal dealers is exporting 1,200 tons of copper through Cape Town harbor every month,'' said Van Dalen. ``We don't have copper mines in Cape Town, so you don't have to be a rocket scientist to know where they're getting this from.''

The government plans to pass new laws by June to regulate unlicensed scrap dealers and give the police more powers to investigate copper theft, said Maggie Sotyu, chairwoman of the parliamentary portfolio committee on safety and security.

``We are certainly very concerned,'' said Bernard Maguire, head of the Johannesburg-based Metal Recyclers Association. ``Our own members are being affected, with criminals hitting their businesses to steal tons of copper.''

Gunn, now the director of the Human Rights Media Centre in Cape Town, is worried that other monuments face a similar threat. She helped develop the Trojan Horse memorial, a steel structure commemorating the death of three children in an ambush in Athlone by apartheid police in 1985.

``I pass the Trojan Horse memorial on a daily basis and my eye is always on it, to check if it's safe,'' said Gunn. ``Everyday I pass, and I think, yes, it's still there.''

To contact the reporters on this story: Nasreen Seria in Johannesburg