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Economic sabotage taking South Africa backwards

Four of South Africa’s State Owned Companies (SOCs) – Transnet, Telkom, Eskom and the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa), together with the South African Police Service, have announced an integrated approach towards combatting the scourge of cable theft, battery theft and infrastructure damage.

This was announced at an SOC Industry Roundtable on economic sabotage of critical infrastructure.

The roundtable was led by chief executives and acting chief executives of the four SOCs, Eskom’s Andre de Ruyter, Transnet’s Portia Derby, Telkom’s Serame Taukobong and Prasa’s Hishaam Emeran.

The CEOs and entities agreed on, amongst others, further integrating their security solutions, which collectively come to about R10 billion annually, supporting the SAPS and the National Prosecuting Authority on criminal cases related to incidents on their networks and working even closer with communities in protecting infrastructure.

An online web application has also been created to increase public awareness and allow stakeholders to receive live, detailed information on incidents in their networks.

Transnet

Transnet CEO Portia Derby told the roundtable discussion that the company experienced a spike in fuel pipeline hits, which cost at least R400 million to clean up, with incidents on its freight rail operations as well.

“Both have a very direct impact on the economy. Whenever we’re hit on the pipeline, it has a real possibility… [of drying] up the whole of Gauteng, which is the lifeblood of the South African economy. In 2022/23, to date, we’ve had 61 incidents and the spike [on these] came up with the fuel [price] increases… It has a R1 billion impact on the environment,” she said,

Derby revealed that cable theft has steadily increased, going from 1 598 incidents in 2017/18 to some 4 356 incidents in 2021/22.

Some 1 506km of cable had to be replaced during the same period, with an “erosion of about R30 billion to the economy” and R2.1 billion in revenue losses.

“When it comes to cable theft… it’s not the size of the cable that they steal. The fact that they’ve stolen [the cable] means that the train can’t move and when the train can’t move, it has an impact on the entire value chain. You end up having a situation where we’ve not been able to meet some of the customer demands. It is truly a damaging impact on the South African economy,” she said.

More than 1 269 suspects have been arrested in rail incidents, with 186 arrested in pipeline incidents.

Transnet security officials have now been granted peace officer status, which will allow them to make arrests, search premises, facilities and people, and complete dockets to ensure suspects are charged correctly.

Eskom

Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter said infrastructure is “being stolen from under our feet” with cables, overhead lines, transformers and conductors coming in at a hefty cost of some R4 billion annually.

“We need to make sure that this is not another collation of noble intentions. We need to make sure that we start delivering and that we can, as State Owned Enterprises, protect ourselves from the scourge of infrastructure theft [and] more importantly protect the citizens of South Africa from the hugely negative consequences of that,” he said.

He said an integrated approach is in the best interests of all of society.

“The opportunity was there to integrate our security efforts even more and to identify areas where [the SOCs] have common infrastructure. It is in our interest to protect the railway line supplying coal to Majuba power station and if we can collaborate on that, there’s cost saving, there’s efficiency that we definitely need to pursue.

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“We’ve received some very good messages of support from chief executives of companies listed on the JSE, who protect their assets and they have offered to make available and to extend the scope of their security patrols to also include some Eskom assets… because ultimately it is in their interest as well to maintain security of [energy] supply,” he said.

Telkom

Telkom CEO, Serame Taukobong, highlighted that for as long as cable and battery theft and damage to infrastructure continues, networks will struggle to bring down the cost of data in the country.

“What’s important for us is the billions that we spend every year to upgrade and maintain our investment in infrastructure. All these investments appeal to the livelihoods of South Africans, from transportation to communication.

“Battery theft, cable theft [and] vandalism of our critical infrastructure is really taking the economy back. [Mobile networks] are all equally challenged to try to reduce the cost of data in South Africa, but the cost on maintaining our infrastructure makes it almost impossible to achieve that,” he said.

Prasa

Acting CEO of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa), Hishaam Emeran, told the roundtable that the current upward trend in theft and vandalism of infrastructure make it “very clear that we need to move with speed”.

The economic sabotage costs Prasa some R7 billion in direct costs, and between R15 billion to R20 billion annually.

He painted a devastating picture of the impact on Prasa, where thousands of incidents have left the rail network at “near total decimation”, with some 1 000km of electrical infrastructure and signalling cabling stolen out of a network of some 2 300km alone.

“One hundred kilometres of rail have been stolen… cut up and physically taken away. Our stations have also not been spared… Of our 590 stations, only 129 are functional as we speak, and we need to bring back those stations. In 2018/19, we were operating on 40 corridors. Today we are operating on 15… we are bringing back a number of those.

“The reality, unfortunately, is that because of this economic sabotage, we have taken a number of steps backward. As we speak today, passenger rail is not the backbone of the transport system and that is a problem,” he said.

The passenger rail company has now gone from – at its peak – transporting some 600 million commuters a year to transporting only 17 million.

However, Emeran said progress is being made to claw back its services.

“Prasa is working very hard to recover the rail service. We are bringing back the 10 priority corridors… many of them before the end of the year. The progress that we have made on the security front is also well documented.

“We have an approved integrated security plan. In essence, we are looking at the role of deployment of physical security personnel. We’ve already increased that by 3 100 and we are continuing to roll that out. That will be followed by a series of technological interventions as well to supplement that.

“We need to keep our foot on the peddle. We need to accelerate. We do not have the luxury of time. Commuters are suffering out there,” Emeran said.

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