South Africa has no copper mines, but copper exports to China are booming -- the result of a cable theft epidemic which regularly plunges whole suburbs into darkness, strands thousands of train passengers and is wreaking havoc with the national economy.
At a crisis meeting on Tuesday with scrap metal dealers, Cape Town mayor Helen Zille warned that the wholesale plundering of insulation cables, wires and even manhole covers threatened to bring the tourist hub "to its knees" -- a fear shared by business leaders throughout the country.
"Nobody will invest in a city if you can't rely on something as basic as an electricity supply," she said. "The entire infrastructure, from sewerage substations to electricity generating points are being vandalized for the sake of a few bucks."
The cable crisis is not unique to South Africa. Record prices for copper and other metals have led to an upsurge in theft and associated disruption in many other countries, ranging from the US to Britain to Vietnam, said Rens Bindeman, a consultant advising South African authorities on how to tackle the problem.
But in South Africa -- already plagued by one of the world's highest crime rates -- authorities fear it is spiraling out of control and will only worsen as the country rolls out infrastructure projects ahead of the 2010 World Cup.
South African authorities say shadowy syndicates are to blame, paying thieves to steal copper cable and other metal items such as sheeting, grids, ladders, water meters, taps and manhole covers. Scrap dealers then melt down the metal, and there are growing signs that the finished product ends up in China, which has an insatiable appetite for raw materials.
Although the Western Cape province has no copper mines, local business leaders reported that the region exported 77 million rands (US$11 million) worth of copper to China last year.
"Some people might say that exports to China are good for the economy. They're not. There is a huge criminal activity going on that is enormously damaging to the economy," said Albert Schuitmaker, of Cape Town's Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Nationally, it costs an estimated 500 million rands just to replace stolen cables every year and 2.5 billion rands in knock-on losses, including the impact of power outages and commuters being late for work when trains do not work.
Schuitmaker cited the example of some businesses being without a fixed telephone line for six months. As soon as Telkom, the telecommunications company, came to replace the cables they were stolen again, he said.
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