KZN cellphone towers torched as 5G conspiracy theories ignite

By Rebecca Pitt 8 January 2021

Archive Photo: A cellphone tower stands alongside a tree in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The torching of four telecommunication towers in KwaZulu-Natal this week follows the resurgence of a global conspiracy theory linking 5G to Covid-19. MTN, Vodacom, Africa Check and the Minister of Telecommunications and Digital Technology emphasise that there is no scientific evidence supporting the theory.

Four MTN and Vodacom cellphone network towers were torched between 5 January and 6 January in KwaZulu-Natal. 

There was also an unsuccessful arson attack on another network tower in KZN, said MTN spokesperson Jacqui O’Sullivan about the destruction. At the time of publication, the two operators were still looking at who owned which towers, according to O’Sullivan.

Vodacom has evidence to suggest that the torching of network infrastructure, including 5G sites, in KZN is fuelled by the latest disinformation campaign on social media platforms, linking 5G and Covid-19, said spokesperson Byron Kennedy of Vodacom.

The modus operandi in the current wave of attacks is to burn down cell phone network infrastructure. By contrast, in typical base station vandalism cases, thieves break into cell phone network base stations in order to steal batteries and copper,” Kennedy said.

The torching of the towers in KZN comes as a recent voice note, recorded by ANC ward 24 councillor Sifiso Mngadi, shared conspiracy theories about the vaccine and linking 5G to Covid-19. The voice note, which surfaced on 4 January, circulated on social media. 

In the voice note, Mngadi said: “As leaders of eThekwini we need to take action against this disease. It is not Covid. We are getting this thing from 5G towers, [some] installed during this period in preparation of the second wave.”

Other posts on social media also circulate the conspiracy.

On 7 January, independent fact-checking agency Africa Check dismissed and responded to a recent Facebook post that also claimed that 5G cellular networks were making people sick, rather than Covid-19. 

Africa Check translated the post that was partly in isiZulu, which said: “There is no coronavirus, people have done research that people are dying from 5G technology.”

According to the group, the original Facebook post was shared as a screenshot and viewed more than 31,200 times. 

The Africa Check report concluded that “there is no strong evidence that radiofrequency waves from cell phone towers have any effect on health” and that these claims were baseless and should be ignored. 

A global conspiracy theory

Claims that link 5G to Covid-19 have been spreading globally since the outbreak of the virus in Wuhan. 

The conspiracy originated in a Belgian newspaper, Het Laatste Nieuws under the headline, “5G is life-threatening, and no one knows it”. According to Wired, in the article, that had since been retracted from its website, it was said that 5G was dangerous and could be linked to Covid-19, pointing out that since 2019 several 5G cell towers were built around Wuhan. 

According to BBC News, the conspiracy has whizzed through the internet leading to the destruction of telecommunication equipment in Bolivia and Europe, with several countries protesting against the technology, as a result of “fear-mongering”. 

Taking action

The destruction of the towers in KZN also comes as the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies is finalising a draft policy for the rollout of 5G networks. 

“This process will be subjected to public consultation as is it required by the Electronic Communications Act of 2005,” said minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, in a statement about the torching incident on 7 January. 

The network infrastructure was “much-needed” as the country requires high-speed connectivity for citizens to participate in the digital economy, this is also crucial in the fight against Covid-19, Ndabeni-Abrahams said.

Ndabeni-Abrahams also urged the South African police to arrest those responsible for the destruction, which she labelled “anarchy”.

“Vodacom’s security teams continue to monitor the situation in KwaZulu-Natal, following the criminal destruction of some of our network infrastructure,” said Kennedy.

“We are working closely with local law enforcement to bring these criminals to book as well as to help protect our network infrastructure across the country.”

No evidence

Both operators reiterated that there was no credible scientific evidence linking 5G or mobile technologies to the spread of coronavirus. 

Ndabeni-Abrahams, also condemned the conspiracy theory saying, “Spreading fake news or disinformation about Covid-19 is a punishable offence. Those involved in the destruction of infrastructure are not only breaking the law but also violate people’s right to access information.”

O’Sullivan stated, “There have been concerns about every technology wave, whether it was 2G, 3G or 4G and to date, no concerns have been proven.” 

The International Commission on Non‐Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), a Germany-based independent scientific body that assesses the health risks of radio broadcasts including 5G, has declared 5G as safe.

“Following an extensive review of the best science currently available, in March 2020 ICNIRP confirmed that there are no adverse effects on human health from 5G frequencies if exposure is within their guidelines,” said Kennedy. 

Vodacom operates its mobile networks strictly within national regulations, which are typically based on or exceed ICNIRP’s guidelines, said Kennedy. And, MTN adheres to the laws, safety and health guidelines set up by the World Health Organisation, said O’Sullivan. 

The ICNIRP is not the only group that has declared that 5G is safe.

“Public health agencies in Australia, Norway and the European Union, have all confirmed the same. While there are allegations that 5G is already causing health problems, including the novel coronavirus, there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support this,” O’Sullivan added. DM



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