Crime

Thieves live underground

A group of men, believed to have lived underground for weeks in an operational mine, were arrested after being caught in possession of copper worth tens of thousands of Rand.

Copper theft, with the potential to paralyze the economy, is becoming such a major problem that the police and industry players have established a forum to try and combat it.

Twelve men were arrested shortly after they exited Shaft Eight at the Arnot Colliery last Friday. A police investigation revealed that the men, posing as legitimate miners, lived underground for at least three weeks, stripping cables and equipment.

The success comes after a three year long investigation by various role players, including Hendrina police officers.

W/o David Mbenekazi, Hendrina police spokesperson, says that people became suspicious after spotting miners descending into the shafts with large amounts of food.

The men were watched and followed, leading investigators to discover that they were taking food down to a group of illegal miners living underground.

Last Friday night, a minibus-taxi was seen entering the mine, supposedly to pick up workers who finished their shift. The fact that it stopped at a shaft which was not used as an exit point for workers, made security guards suspicious. The vehicle was pulled over and searched after it picked up a group of men.

Copper worth R70 000 was found in the men’s possession. They were all dressed as legitimate miners.

“When other miners see them underground, they have no idea that they are actually looking at thieves.”

W/o Mbenekazi says that the men are from the Uitkyk and Duvha squatter camps near Middelburg. Some of the suspects are Mozambican nationals with others originally from the Eastern Cape and the Free State. Police suspect that another team of illegal miners may be operating in the same area.

“We believe that when one team comes up after three weeks, another goes down. But we will catch them, it is only a matter of time,” says w/o Mbenekazi.

Pitso Mashale, Skhumbuzo Mkhwanazi, Rankudi Lejakane, Mthembeni Sokhanyile, Letlala Letlala, Mzawufunwa Notshutsha, Kgabo Pitso, David Msiya, Pakiso Makola, Josias Fubane, Lehlohonolo Moeti and Lebabo Mathoko, were charged with illegal mining and theft and have already appeared in the Hendrina Magistrate’s court.

• A source in the police say that more than half the cases reported at the Blinkpan police station in 2014 were that of copper theft. A staggering 485 copper theft cases were reported there last year. The same source say that the Hendrina police is already experiencing a surge in thefts at the Optimum Mine where more than a thousand workers are being laid off in the near future.

A 55 year-old worker, Salmon Simphiwe Mkhabela, was found dead after getting caught in one of the conveyor belts at Optimum Mine. Information is that copper was found close to his body.

• Col. Leonard Hlathi, provincial police spokesperson, sits on the Non-Ferous Crime Combatting Forum, tasked with tackling the rising wave of copper thefts.

“We have regular meetings with stakeholders where we identify and discuss particular problems in mines and corporations. We take the information we receive and organize operations. After recovering stolen goods, the communication between stakeholders make it easy to identify items,” he says.

The forum reaped rewards when a truck carrying stolen cables worth R250 000 were seized in Siyabuswa over the past weekend. The cables were identified as belonging to Eskom.

Col. Hlathi says that the next meeting is to be held in Ermelo next week.

• The South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry has gone as far as creating a Copper Theft Barometre to indicate the losses suffered due to this type of crime. Astronomic losses, as much as R15,4 million in May, were reported last year. They have called for the police to establish a unit dedicated to copper theft only.

• Fingers point to the scrap metal industry as being one of the main reasons for the surge in copper theft.

“Many of them do not want to adhere to standards,” says col. Hlathi.

And as long as someone is buying, there will be people willing to risk their lives, and stay underground for weeks on end, to get their hands on the sought after commodity.

Jana Boshoff

Award-winning community news journalist with over a decade's newsroom experience. Passionate about hard-hitting news stories!
 
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