Criminals kicking Transnet while it’s down

 ·26 Oct 2022

During a media briefing on Tuesday (25 October), Transnet Freight rail said that cable theft spiked by 22% throughout the 12-day strike over wage disputes – further hobbling a service that has already cost exporters billions in rands.

Even before the crippling labour strike that hit the group in October, Transnet was operating well below target due to shortages of locomotives, poor maintenance, a lack of spare parts for trains, copper cable theft and vandalism.

For thieves, the strike merely made it more accessible. Transnet executives said that the latest cable theft resulted from low numbers of security staff, who were concentrated in areas of protest.

“We have lost 12 kilometres of cable during the strike. The theft occurred between Ladysmith and Pietermaritzburg, which is a major hotspot for cable thieves,” said Transnet managing executive Rudzani Ligege.

The theft has added to the freight rail company’s existing maintenance backlog, which now sits in the billions of rands. Ligege said it would cost around R24 million to replace the 12 kilometres of stolen cable.

This latest theft adds to the long list of incidences that have been reported, including those that occurred when Transnet was heavily impacted by the KwaZulu Natal floods, which saw the company shutting down its operations for over six weeks – delaying services and exposing it to further crime.

Transnet’s head of safety and security, Marius Bennett, said this is not just a Transnet issue, and relevant authorities need to step in.

“Transnet on its own cannot fight this [theft]. It’s not an isolated Transnet incident, and we need the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and the Police onboard to assist. “If we get this right, we will turn the tide on these crimes,” he said.

The prolonged strike action at Transnet has had a devasting toll on the economy, with the company essential to South Africa’s export and import industry.

Valuable commodities like iron, coal and other ores have not been able to move through the ports, and the latest spate of theft and vandalism is only making it harder for the embattled freight rail company to catch up on its export backlogs.

The Minerals Council of South Africa said last week that the strike had cost the mining sector R6 billion a day, compounded on top of the R50 billion already lost by previous failings.

Despite this, Transnet said it still aims to service 60 million tonnes of coal in its financial year through March 2023.

“We are working tirelessly to continue the improvements that we started to see before the strike started,” said Ali Motala, managing executive for Transnet Freight Rail’s north corridor, which hauls thermal coal from mines to Richards Bay Coal Terminal.

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