6/2/2022 - Stories about installed or stored copper being stolen for its raw material value are so common that WJI seldom prints them, but thieves in South Africa platinum mines have stood out, and not in a fun or quirky way. This story is just tragic. Below are edited excerpts from multiple media reports about a story where everyone loses.
Copper cables thieves in South Africa have found a deep, dark place to swipe copper cable: South African platinum mines. A stream of media reports has outlined how gangs have sneaked in deep underground, and set up camp in the vast network of tunnels from which they strip metal from power cables. It is a remarkably deadly pursuit.
The gangs are syndicates of thieves known as “zama zamas,” a Zulu name that means “take a chance.” Illegal mining has long been a problem in South Africa, but the focus now is on stealing copper. When copper was stripped at Sibanye’s Thembelani shaft in March, it led to a fire that forced 140 workers to evacuate. The company had 120 theft incidents last year and recovered about 5.1 tons of stolen copper. Year to date, there have been 45 incidents/3.2 tons recovered.
The thefts are difficult to stop because of the vast warren of tunnels. Over time, the thefts became far more complex, with gangs setting up their own supply chains. Descent is often made via ropes or handmade ladders. The copper is stripped and hidden away in unused tunnels before being taken away at night using pre-arranged transport.
As many as 500 thieves may be in a given mine at any time. They can spend days underground, and some of the illegal miners have been known to set booby traps or ambushes for mining staff or even rival gangs. It can take a full week to replace some of the key copper cables, so the loss is not just in the cable but in mining of platinum, a key element for making catalytic converters.
Just as there is no lack of thieves, there is no lack of potential bad endings. Last October, owners of one mine sealed off a ventilation shaft that illegal miners had been using to come and go. Per reports, a trickle of trapped gang members tried to escape, helped by fellow members above ground. At one point the zama zamas clashed with police in a shootout that saw eight of the thieves die. Several months earlier, the decomposed bodies of some 20 gang members were found. They were believed to have been killed in a gas explosion underground.
Per reports, the gangs have not been deterred. What remains is a sad statement that transcends wire.