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Transnet cable theft report: And there goes the end of my tether


Sasha Planting is a seasoned financial journalist and Associate Business Editor at Daily Maverick Business.

As my colleagues, friends and some readers will know, I’m usually the epitome of calmness. Not quite Federer calm, but close enough. I generally choose to listen and prefer to keep my opinions to myself. At the same time, I strive for balance and objectivity in my reporting. But sometimes life can push you a bit closer to the edge.

Death will do that. How many people do you have in your life that love you unconditionally? The actual number is irrelevant, but it may be fewer than you imagine. And so losing one of them takes its toll. Life comes into sharp perspective.

Emotions, predictably, are raw. Some emotions, of course, are to be expected. Grief. Sadness. Loss. Regret. But what I had not expected is anger. White-hot and tightly curled, it sits deep in the pit of my belly, ready to erupt like a volcano at the smallest tremor. The driver, travelling at 90km/h on a suburban road who dared flash his lights at me. Or the doctor’s assistant who told me the script I’d come to collect would only be ready in the afternoon. But just as easily as the emotion erupts, so it subsides.

This week, reading Transnet’s now-regular report on cable theft, I felt the now-familiar knot as the volcano threatened to erupt. Except this time I did not know what to do with the anger that seethed within. I was – am – outraged.

Think about this: in the 10 days up to 10 November, 55km of copper cable was stolen off Transnet railway lines. That’s 5.5kms a day of the wires that power the trains up and down the country and around the metro networks that are still running.

This is up from 2km a day in June/July and, if we carry on at this rate, criminals will soon be stealing 10km a day. This boggles the mind. It takes heavy equipment and dozens of people to rip out cabling. The thieves can hardly be inconspicuous, and often return just days after the line is repaired. It is all very well to report the stats, but what are you doing about it? Where is the security, intelligence, local community support?

It costs about R1-million a kilometre to replace that cable. That means R5.5-million in cable-related expenses a day. High-tech security would be cheap at the price.

This year, Transnet Freight Rail cancelled 1,190 trains as a direct result of security-related incidents. There has been a spike in incidents on the coal line, the manganese line and on the Central Corridor that connects these lines. These lost volumes can never be recouped. These lines are cash cows; they are what is holding the already lossmaking company back from the brink.

The problem is evident: if you neglect your lines, thieves and opportunists will encroach on your assets. It’s the same as leaving your car in Delmas for three months and expecting it to be there when you return. Assuming such is negligence. Where is this cable going? It’s not something you can slip into your back pocket. Someone must have eyes on. Is our intelligence that bad that we cannot put a stop to this criminal enterprise?

Transnet has had new leadership for 18 months. Why have we not seen a visible difference in the performance of the critically important Sishen-Saldanha line, which transports iron ore from the mines in the Northern Cape to the port at Saldanha? Why have maintenance and security not been prioritised on the coal lines?

Performance has been so poor that coal miner Exxarro recently put out a request for information to find alternative solutions to Transnet.

How is this even remotely acceptable? And what about the companies that are getting fat supplying cable to Transnet? Who are they? Nice business if you can get it.

And it’s not all about Transnet. What about the supposed “third-party access” that the government promised last October as part of the much-trumpeted Operation Vulindlela, which is meant to accelerate the implementation of structural reforms?

At the time, branch-line concession agreements were signed with three companies, including the energetic Sbhekuza Rail. But nothing has come of this because the parties cannot agree on the T’s & C’s of the contract.

Predictably, the government (which knows sweet blow-all about business) is determined to shove its own archaic ideology down business’s throats. It’s a habit that disables any and all enterprising individuals who try to engage with it.

Long live ideology. Screw the country. And yes, I’m having a rant. Usually, my style is to avoid ranting. It gets the blood up and nobody listens anyway. But this time I don’t care because I’m angry, and it feels good saying so. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Pieter Malan says:

    Shut the scrapyards down and let them beg to open up their businesses again. Make them sign a ethics code and open their doors and books for inspection. Follow the money.

  • virginia crawford says:

    Agree – shut the scrap yards down. Also investigate all copper exports. Some people are benefiting- but who? Politicians? Police? Government officials?

  • Ian Gwilt says:

    A bit harsh
    The scrap industry is much maligned , but is an employer of thousands
    Where is the intelligence and security ?
    There are codes of practice in the industry.
    This is not the established industry or even small scale chop shops
    It is a organised crime syndicate, How does the stuff cross the border ?

  • James Cunningham says:

    I’ve had 2 containers stuck in Durban for a week due to cable theft. I completely agree that the situation requires action and quickly. However I’m beginning to think that the cable theft isn’t just the result of incompetence and rampant criminality. I suspect that it is happening intentionally to destabilize the country. Now I know that if that were the case then the Sishen line should also be affected but this anomaly may just just be because there are more “operatives” in the Npumalanga Kwa Zulu Natal area.

  • Desmond McLeod says:

    The last time I suffered a burglary, the “investigating detective” asked if I was insured. When I confirmed I was, he responded that I should be happy because I could now claim and receive brand new replacements “free of charge”!
    I think this, together with a belief that corruption is not a crime, it is “receiving a tip” for “good service” is at the crux this country’s problem. The average person does not have any appreciation for macro economics. They believe the Government can fund everything as, they “print the money”.

  • Alan Jeffrey says:

    Wonderful stuff Sasha-Rage Rage against the dying of the Light! However the cold light of the day fact is that we are dealing with a Government and set of cohort parastatals some of whom are either/and/or incompetent, disinterested, without shame,corrupt, lazy, useless…did I leave anything out? When the new head of Transnet was appointed she said that her motto was to be -Maintenance, Maintenance, Maintenance. I suggested politely that a first simple task might perhaps be to clear the filthy mass of litter and plastic from the main lines out of Durban-at least fro the worst section of about 2 kilometres heading toward Berea Road. Any visitor to Durban via Rail must be horrified to see the extent of this outrage. What a Metaphor for failure, how embarrassing is this cesspit.
    18 months on and it has gotten worse.
    What can one say Sasha-I am a fellow sufferer in Wonderland.

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    I am not sure why we are whinging. Is Transnet not the epitome of transformation economics, politics and philosophy? Have we not arrived, at least for Transnet, at the final Afro-nisation of a neo-colonial apartheid institution?
    Even the Blue Train, that symbol of exclusive rich white travel has now been derailed, finally.
    Transnet can get on with the business of transporting people [subject to Taxi association approvals] in coaches that have to be reinforced against possible gun-toting robbers. No need to be Euro-centric and clean the carriages either, as people will eventually get fed up and not use them anymore – then staff won’t have to work so hard, and will be free to take up moonshine appointments elsewhere with their free time. Nirvana has arrived.

  • Dewald Snyman says:

    In Atlas Shrugged the protagonists believe that they are “the chosen few” and try to destroy the economy to prove a point. Once everything has gone Zimbabwe they then restart their own economic Nirvana up in the mountains – and to hell with the rest. Personally I believe that the RET faction is attempting to do the same to the SA economy: Destroy everything and build something new. The absolute incompetence and disrespect of the law is so outrageous that the only way I can make sense of this is to believe that such conduct is intentional!

  • Brian Cotter says:

    Not one comment mentions the name of the Minister Fikile, absent from his post during elections and also when elections are not taking place.

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    After a recent road trip on the R62, I decided that I would vote for the party, whatever the ideology, which promises to fix Transnet and regulate the trucking industry. Without trains the country is spineless, and no oversight means other industries either take over or die off. It’s good to rant, but we really need people to vote.

  • Saul Bamberger says:

    It could be and should be simple to attach trackers to the cable lines every x amount of meters. Then we’d know where the cable is going to.
    It could and should be a high priority to stop this crime which is also plaguing Eskom.
    It isn’t because: the government doesn’t care or, more likely, they benefit from the theft through tender kickbacks. I wouldn’t be surprised if the ANC kleptocracy benefits from selling the stolen cable. Maybe they even run the cartel stealing it! Your rage is justified.

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