First Thing, Daily Maverick's flagship newsletter

Join the 230 000 South Africans who read First Thing newsletter.

Infrastructure thieves, rogue scrap metal merchants are...

Defend Truth


Infrastructure thieves and rogue scrap metal merchants are stealing our future


Bongani K Mahlangu is an independent economic analyst, commentator, and social activist.

The vandalising and theft of South Africa’s infrastructure is tantamount to economic sabotage, is reversing historic gains made by the republic, and puts the lives of citizens at risk

The Metal Recyclers Association of South Africa (MRA) estimates that South Africa had over 400,000 informal scrap metal waste collectors in 2016, and considering the year of publication, those numbers would have increased significantly — and that’s just the legal ones.

These collectors contributed to the collection of 1,571,641 tonnes of ferrous metal exports worth over R5.88-billion. Ferrous scrap metals contribute 90% of volumes generated in South Africa, and globally. Non-ferrous metal exports fetched R3.391-billion from 132,102 tonnes to mainly the Asian market in 2014.  

The same collectors contributed 400,000 tonnes to foundries, and 1,125,000 tonnes to mills and mini-mills of ferrous scrap metals in 2015 in South Africa. These figures demonstrate just how lucrative and attractive the South African scrap metal industry is.  

Foreign and domestic demand for South African scrap metals, inadequate enforcement of the Second-Hand Goods Act (Act no 6 of 2009) and the Precious Metals Act 2005 (Act no 17 of 2005) have led to a situation in which critical rail, building, road, and electricity infrastructure throughout the country is being stripped on a daily, rapid basis.

This socioeconomic sabotage is reversing historic gains made by the republic and puts the lives of citizens at risk as traffic control systems are being vandalised, leading to road accidents and increased travel time, manhole covers stolen leading to injuries, train infrastructure stolen leading to increased road use and cost of movement and production costs, and worse, leading to severe economic and social costs.

These criminal acts, compounded by the state’s inability to curb them, are widening the over R708-billion infrastructure development gap; with urban infrastructure requiring at least R227-billion in the next 10 years to address the existing infrastructure deficit, according to Ian Palmer et al.

It’s worth noting that most illegal scrap metal activity takes place in urban areas due to the level of development there. Urban geographies are also significant contributors to revenue for the state as a result of economic activity.

The decrease in productivity as a result of infrastructure being stripped with impunity impacts rural dwellers as well, directly, as government spending is largely enabled by urban-generated revenue, especially transfer payments.

But rural infrastructure is being stripped as well, contributing to the infrastructure urban-rural divide. The little remaining social infrastructure in rural areas is near gone, leaving communities, especially young persons, without recreational space besides taverns to meet, socialise, and release excess energy, making them vulnerable to all sorts of dangers.

Trains largely stopped operating at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown, and little did the residents of places like Daveyton in Ekurhuleni know that it would be the last they would see or use a train. This forced this poor and working-class community to use the only alternative available public transport, unsubsidised minibus taxis.

With climbing fuel prices, even before the Russian “Special Military Operation” in Ukraine, this has meant an unprecedented increase in taxi fares, increases that are above and rising faster than disposable income increments. This means the poor working-class households of Daveyton have seen their economic fortunes eroded, they are becoming poorer than pre-Covid times before their train infrastructure disappeared. The informal and formal economies that were reliant on the movement of these trains were also severely impacted.

These crimes take place within municipal jurisdictions and councils should be enforcing regulations guiding the extraction, retention, recycling and sale of scrap metals within their municipalities. These efforts should complement existing efforts by SAPS and other organs of state. There need be no further policy developments from provincial and national government — the laws are already in place.

Government must improve the policing and enforcement of existing regulations on the scrap metal industry. Scrap yards are generally located close to accessible and busy urban routes and policing is perfectly feasible.

South Africa’s scrap metal is largely exported to the East — that information should direct our officials as to which countries to engage in order to ensure bilateral coordination between supplier and consumer in ensuring compliance with the law and the safeguarding of our economic interests.

If government at all three tiers with all their relevant entities and resources doesn’t protect our infrastructure and doesn’t deal decisively with this crime, South Africa will move another significant step closer to becoming a failed state. We don’t need new policies — we do need the Second-Hand Goods Act and Precious Metals Act to be enforced, immediately. DM


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted