From March 2019 to the end of October 2023, 4,633 km of copper cables – enough to stretch across the width of the mainland United States – were stolen from Transnet.
This was revealed by Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan in a written reply to a Parliamentary question this week.
Gordhan said Transnet Freight Rail has been plagued by theft, vandalism, and a general lack of efficiency over the past years.
The minister said actions are being taken to enhance the effectiveness of the freight rail system to ensure the efficient movement of goods to and from the country’s ports.
It is estimated that 75% of Transnet’s railways are inoperable due to theft of cables and vandalism.
Professor of industrial engineering at Stellenbosch University Jan Havenga previously said that South Africa’s rail infrastructure is “going backwards at a horrendous pace”.
An example of this deterioration is the Durban-Johannesburg rail corridor, designed to transport 70 trains daily but at some points can only transport less than ten trains per day.
This has resulted in the amount of freight transported by rail in South Africa decreasing to levels last seen during World War II.
A more serious issue, according to Havenga, is that when railways stand idle, it is a lot easier to vandalise and steal cables from them.
The best solution to prevent cable theft is for trains to run consistently on the corridors as they provide an obstacle to thieves and vandals.
This must be complemented by security on the ground and engagement with communities that live alongside railways.
Chief commercial officer at Transnet Freight Rail Bonginkosi Mabaso said that in the last financial year alone, the utility had over 1,600km of cable stolen from its railways.
This is a critical issue for Transnet as it is immensely costly to replace and repair thousands of kilometres of cables annually.
Mabaso said that initiatives from Transnet and collaboration with the private sector had reduced the amount of cable stolen in 2023 versus 2022.
The crises plaguing Transnet are costing the South African economy billions in economic output, with Havenga’s GAIN Group estimating the loss at R1 billion a day in 2023.
This is equivalent to 4.9% of the annual GDP or R353 billion.
The calculated cost to the South African economy includes the failure to achieve potential exports, the impact of inefficient logistics resulting in higher costs, and other indirect impacts from lost revenue on the economy.