Plague of copper theft from fire-ravaged Knysna homes

Police in the Southern Cape admit there is a problem.

Copper theft from the graves of razed homes is happening on a widespread scale in Knysna, but not being accurately reflected because, unless homeowners press charges with the police, the cases are most often dismissed.

Readers have told the Knysna-Plett Herald that they have chased people away from their own properties, and have seen this kind of theft in Knysna Heights, Brenton-on-Sea and Belvidere.

One Knysna Heights resident, who does not want to be named, whose house is still intact among the ruins in this area, said: “This rummaging for copper and any fittings is a daily sight. Even more concerning is that these copper thieves then see an opportunity for crime while they are in the area, thus attracting a whole new criminal element.”

Security company Allsound has apprehended copper cable thieves from clients’ properties since the fires, the latest two being in Knysna Heights’ Ridge and Circular drives this week.

Once Allsound catches the culprits, they hand them over to the police, but the problem up until now has been that unless charges are laid by owners, these cases slip through the cracks, and the police do not issue reports when charges have not been laid.

‘Copper theft a problem’
Police spokesperson for the Southern Cape Captain Malcolm Pojie admitted there is a problem, but did not give any statistics of how widespread this crime is.

“You are quite right with the assumption regarding the cases usually opened by SAPS in the said scenario [a few have been opened]. However, the onus first rests on the affected party/owner to report the looting or theft at his premises.

“In an event where SAPS members have reason to believe that a person is in possession of suspected stolen property, such person can be arrested and brought before court. However, in court, the onus still rests on the state to prove beyond reasonable doubt that a person is guilty or not,” said Pojie, explaining why there have not been more arrests.

“Furthermore, the Secondhand Goods Act places an obligation on SAPS to regularly make compliance visits to secondhand dealers, which include scrapyards. This is done to ensure proper record keeping, accountability and also to monitor and act upon fraudulent and illicit conduct,” said Pojie, who confirmed that inspections are carried out to ensure compliance with the Act.

Reporting crimes a start
“We commend security companies for their the cooperation and services rendered to safeguard their clients’ properties. Unfortunately, we do not have the capacity to guard properties on an ongoing basis as we have to attend to all crime incidents. However, as soon as crime is reported, proper attention is given to the investigation of such cases, to bring culprits to book,” said Pojie, adding that police members have been sensitised to the problem and have increased density patrols in the affected areas.

In the meantime, Ashley Boëtius from Allsound decided to find out why copper theft is proving to be so popular.

Lucrative ‘business’
She said that after recovering items dropped by fleeing suspects, she decided to do research. “I visited one of the local scrap dealers with the ill-gotten spoils, and this is what we discovered: brass is sold at R25/kg (water pipes and electrical wiring), copper at R15/kg (door handles, hinges, window latches, pipe fittings), while brass and copper mixed sells for R20/kg (water pipes with brass fittings still attached).”

According to Boëtius, the items, in one example, were separated into piles, placed on the scales and calculated, with a total brass payout of 4.3kg yielding R107.50 plus a copper/brass mix of 6kg fetching R120. The total earnings of less than an hour’s rummaging came to R227.50.

“This came as quite a surprise, as we thought two small bags couldn’t be more than R75. But it goes to show, R227 is worthwhile for a criminal, which is why it is happening.”

What the law says

Research was then done by Allsound into the legality of the situation.

“According to SAPS there are two types of charges that can be laid: if the person does not have permission and is caught on the property, this is theft and the owner should open a case and provide a statement for such.

“Secondly if a person is caught in possession of stolen items where the owner is not known at the time, SAPS can open a case for possession of suspected stolen goods. The onus is then on the arrested person to prove where he got the items from and verification that he had permission to do so. If his story can be corroborated, the charges can be withdrawn and he is free to take his wares.”

When approaching the merchants who are buying the stolen property, Allsound was told: “If the owner has given permission for someone to clear his property of scrap metal, they should provide a letter stating so and give their contact information for the scrap dealer to verify. The person selling the scrap metal should take their ID with them to record the sale.

“If someone arrives to sell scrap metal, they are required by law to provide their ID and all entries are recorded in the merchants’ register for inspection by SAPS. If the seller does not have identification or refuses to provide it, they contact SAPS to question the individual,” Boëtius said.

The problem here, unearthed by Allsound, is that this procedure is not being strictly followed.

“When we asked the merchant how often people are arrested, the answer was, ‘not all that often’,” said Boëtius, concluding: “It seems this is a lucrative business for all parties at the moment.”

Easy pickings from destroyed properties in Knysna Heights include copper, brass and fittings. Picture: Knysna-Plett Herald

Easy pickings from destroyed properties in Knysna Heights include copper, brass and fittings. Picture: Knysna-Plett Herald

Caxton News Service



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