Cable thieves could face long jail terms

Think again before stealing that steel manhole cover, those phone lines or electricity cables – tough new minimum sentences of three to 25 years in jail are on the way.

The changes are in the Criminal Matters Amendment Bill 2015, which the Justice and Correctional Services Ministry intends tabling in Parliament soon.

The bill creates a new offence.

“It criminalises the unlawful and intentional tampering with or damaging or destroying of essential infrastructure, and provides for the possibility of the imposition of a severe penalty, namely imprisonment which may be up to 30 years,” a ministry memo explaining the bill said.


Visitors to Thailand will reminisce with this picture. It seems as though the country does not recognise underground cabling. One wonders how long it would last in South Africa

“The creation of this offence provides an opportunity for the legislature to emphasize the seriousness of this offence by allowing for the imposition by courts of a harsh sentence, and to ensure that legislation is in place to regulate this aspect adequately, instead of having to rely on the common-law offence of malicious damage to property, which is often regarded as a minor offence.”

The bill says bail for such crimes may be granted only by courts.

When those in positions of trust – police, security guards, employees or contractors of the entity targeted – or gangs are involved, it is regarded as a more serious offence and thus more difficult to get bail.

Minimum sentences are harsh. First-time offenders face a minimum of three years in jail. A second offence brings five years, and third time around it’s seven years in jail.

Scrap-metal dealers and secondhand dealers caught with any metal bits of “essential infrastructure” that can’t be explained legally face minimum sentences of five to 10 years.

Those whose interference with essential infrastructure is regarded as organised crime should expect minimum sentences of 15, 20 or 25 years, depending on the convicted person’s previous convictions, the memo states.

This part of the bill links the infrastructure crimes to the Prevention of Organised Crime Act.

The essential infrastructure is “any installation, structure, facility or system, whether publicly or privately owned, the loss or damage of, or the tampering with, which may interfere with the provision of a basic service to the public”, the bill says.

Basic services include those for energy, transport, water, sanitation and communication.

The bill explains that “essential infrastructure-related offences are becoming increasingly more organised and are often committed by armed and dangerous criminal groups”, and while the actions may sometimes seem relatively minor, they cause considerable damage to essential infrastructure.

A copy of the bill will be put on the ministry’s website at

Theft and vandalism of essential infrastructure is an ongoing major problem for both the government and business, with thieves targeting everything from cables and heavy metal in buildings to traffic lights, sewer covers, taps and lamp posts.

The SA Chamber of Commerce and Industry tracks the theft of copper, and its most recent report noted theft of 180 tons of copper nationwide, valued at R12.9 million in May, compared to 179 tons worth R13.6m in April (the lower value for May’s thefts was due to the decrease in the price of copper).