Life inside the South African gangs risking everything for copper
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The copper thieves were known as izinyoka, “snakes” in Zulu, and they barely made a sound as they prepared early one morning. On the porch of a rundown breezeblock home in Johannesburg’s largest township, the three men pulled on their disguise of municipal workers’ coveralls, then shared a smoke. The air filled with clouds of nyaope, a cocktail of black-tar heroin cut with marijuana, rat poison and antiretroviral drugs. Eventually, their leader spoke up over the sound of rain hammering the corrugated iron roof above them.
“Kea tsamaya,” he said curtly. It meant “I’m going” in Setswana, the southern African language they switched to whenever they were officially on the job. Then he handed out the guns.
Copper was the new gold, as far as their gang was concerned, and anywhere it could be found was fair plunder. Theoretically, the sale and export of scrap copper is carefully controlled by South African officials. But the properties that make it the world’s third most-used metal also make copper a smuggler’s dream. Malleable and recyclable, it is easily melted down, after which its origin becomes virtually untraceable. It was February 2021 and prices had hit a 10-year high, reaching $9,000 a tonne on international markets. Any number of unscrupulous dealers would buy the coveted metal, then resell it in South Africa or, more likely, help smuggle it to booming markets in China and India.
That made a ragtag group of izinyoka the first link in a lucrative supply chain ultimately controlled by international syndicates. They were connected and feared enough that they’d never yet had to shoot anyone with their 9mm semi-automatic pistols. A warning volley fired into the air when they arrived on a job was enough to clear the premises. This heist was so routine that their group had deemed only three of their dozens of members were necessary.
Sausages was in charge. The portly commander had informants in every location worth robbing, and he’d already paid off the security guards. He had then summoned Mafia, whose nyaope addiction meant he took on jobs with a zeal bordering on ruthlessness. “That guy was smoking every day. That’s why, every day, he had to steal cables, to buy more,” recalled the third gang member, a skinny, softly spoken man known as TwoSix.
It was Mafia who once scaled a 27-metre-high electric pylon to cut live wires. But, in their time working together, they had all hacked down telephone poles, dug up underground cables and broken into industrial plants. Train stations were a favourite target. By the end of that year, izinyoka had ripped out more than 1,000 kilometres of overhead cable from Transnet, the state-owned freight rail operator, prompting it to contemplate switching from hybrid electric locomotives to diesel-only models that don’t require cabling.
In January, the consequences of industrial-scale theft in South Africa included: three security guards killed during heists; three hospitals scaling back operations because stolen copper plumbing hampers their ability to pipe oxygen to intensive care units; trains cancelled due to stolen signalling cable or track sleepers; parts of the city going without electricity for days after thieves toppled pylons.
Mining, South Africa’s largest industry, has been severely disrupted. Pits across the country churn up gold, gemstones, rare earth metals and coal, and the country is home to about 90 per cent of known deposits of platinum, vital for electronics and electric vehicles. One morning in March, a platinum operator discovered 300 metres of copper cabling had been stolen from a production site. Workers at Royal Bafokeng Platinum laid new cables the following day, but the thieves were back by nightfall. “To be investable as a country, you should be able as a country to protect investments,” the company’s chief executive Steve Phiri said during a mining conference in Johannesburg that month. “Things are beginning to fall apart.”
This particular robbery wouldn’t make many headlines. The target was a small electricity substation deep in the urban sprawl of Soweto, in a neighbourhood of broken street lights and criss-crossing train tracks. The thieves planned to unscrew four football-sized bolts, each of which was packed with several kilogrammes of fine copper wiring. The vandalism would likely trigger a days-long power outage, but in a part of the city where schools are forced to sometimes go without electricity, they figured nobody would investigate. A 20-minute job would net them R3,000 ($163) each once they sold the copper, enough to provide for their families for a fortnight.
They drove through the empty streets in a battered white pick-up. Over the years, they had loaded it with thousands of kilogrammes of stolen copper. Their destination was perched on a grassy verge at the end of a red dirt street. Miniature pylons rose over a wrought-iron security fence, but the entrance gate was unlocked, the 24-hour guards nowhere to be seen.
Later, TwoSix’s recollections formed a tangled sequence he struggled to put in order. There was Mafia weaving around the hulking metal installations. Had Sausages called out and started running before — or after — it happened? Was he trying to warn Mafia? Or had he already realised it was too late?
The mains supply in a typical home provides 230 volts, but only after the electricity has been transformed to a usable voltage via a substation. Now, Mafia stood above a cable in the transmission facility that was drawing in 11,000 volts from the surrounding pylons. He swayed as heroin coursed through his veins. He lifted a hand to wipe away the rainwater streaming into his face. Then he leaned forward, pressed the handles of the wire cutter together and . . .
The shockwave slammed TwoSix to the ground. The entire neighbourhood was plunged into darkness. Heart thudding, he scrambled to his feet. The spotlight of his headlamp illuminated a nightmare: red skin peeling off Mafia’s blackened body, tendrils of smoke, a flash of barbed wire. Someone was screaming. TwoSix lurched towards the entrance, then started running. A sharp pain bloomed beneath his rib cage, but he kept running, running, running.
Copper, found in rich seams through the Earth’s crust, changed the course of civilisation. About 10,000 years ago, it became the first metal worked by human beings. The discovery that mixing this soft, reddish-hued element with tin formed a much harder alloy ushered in the Bronze Age. Empires rose as metal began to replace stone tools and weapons. Ancient Egyptians used bronze much as we use iron today. The word copper comes from cuprum, the Latin name for Cyprus, where the Roman empire sourced the element.
By the 19th century, rapid industrialisation spurred the rise of copper in steam engines, electrification and telephone systems. Strong, ductile, and a better conductor than any metal except silver, the roughly 22mn tonnes of copper now mined each year is used in everything from construction to electronics to industrial machinery. Copper is critical to the green energy transition needed to avert climate catastrophe, a component in solar panels, wind turbines and electric motors. A construction boom in China, rapid electrification in developing countries and net zero commitments mean demand will almost double by 2035. Unless production is ramped up and new extraction technologies come into play, “the ensuing scramble may be compared to that for fossil fuels in the 20th century”, analysts at S&P Global warned last year.
Into this perfect storm have entered criminal syndicates. “The theft was always there, but there wasn’t enough money in it to draw in the multinational criminal gangs,” said Donald MacKay, CEO of Johannesburg-based XA Global Trade Advisors. “Recycled metals have so dramatically increased in value that it’s now worth a criminal enterprise getting involved at scale.”
In many ways, South Africa is a gangster’s paradise for a multinational cartel. Johannesburg, a city that was literally built on gold reefs, boasts glittering malls and world-class facilities. The country has industrial capacity and well-established links to global markets. But Africa’s most industrialised economy is also strangled by staggering poverty and corruption. Much of that is a legacy of apartheid. But, after 29 years with the African National Congress party at the helm, corruption continues to hollow out state institutions, while South Africa suffers some of the highest levels of inequality in the world.
Crime syndicates have found here a combination of abundant quantities of valuable metals, lax law enforcement and a steady supply of foot soldiers in thieves who steal for survival or to maintain drug addiction. “The cartels — the fancy boys sitting in their fancy offices — are not exposed to all the theft and murder,” said Evert Swanepoel, chair of the Copper Development Association Africa, a trade organisation. “And that’s where the problem lies. They’re employing poor, desperate guys at a time when every country in the world is clamouring for copper.”
TwoSix — the nickname is an English wordplay on his Setswana name — has almond-shaped eyes set in a face pitted with scars. It took weeks of negotiating with a go-between for him to agree to meet me, then another couple of weeks to organise a location to meet, because he has no cell phone. He was also worried about rival gang members and the authorities. When we finally sat down together in a desolate KFC, as he picked at fried chicken, I noticed a strange chemical smell on his breath that I couldn’t quite identify.
His criminal career, he told me, began one afternoon in January 2007. Hungry and high, he attempted to rob a supermarket at knifepoint for food and booze. It went awry almost immediately. The store manager simply knocked the knife out of his hand and pinned him down.
Midway through the two-year prison sentence that followed, a new cellmate arrived. It was Sausages. The well-built older man had been sentenced to a maximum-security prison after a string of carjackings at gunpoint. But overcrowding landed him in the minimum-security facility with TwoSix, where he quickly took his fellow prisoner under his wing. Relentlessly upbeat, full of plans, Sausages coaxed him into enrolling in a bricklaying course to gain a skill they could use on the outside. “He helped me. I started studying, and it was good for me. I ended up enjoying it,” TwoSix recalled.
Once out of prison, TwoSix tried to secure steady employment, but found nothing beyond short stints as a bricklayer. By this time, he was in his early twenties. All his possessions fitted into the single-room outhouse where his mother let him stay rent-free. One morning in April 2009, he was lying on his cot bed, smoking a nyaope joint. Heroin helped numb everything: the chill seeping through the thin walls, the stomach cramps from hunger.
A few hours later, Sausages arrived, saying he had good news. Nobody would give them a fair chance now they had a record, but he knew a quick and easy way to make cash, and there would be no victims. “He said he’d do the transport, all the tools,” TwoSix recalled. “We didn’t need guns that time. Everything was ready.”
At 8pm the following evening, TwoSix walked out of his mother’s home to where Sausages was waiting in a white pick-up truck. The two men drove a short distance to a warehouse behind the local train station. “The security guys, he’d already paid them. They knew we were coming, everything was packed for us.” Minutes later, they walked out of the station carrying three back-achingly heavy boxes. The next morning, a scrap dealer weighed the boxes, and TwoSix received R50,000 (about $2,700).
He never knew where the metal went once it changed hands. At this point the whole operation typically shifts into the realm of a much larger criminal enterprise. A chop shop handling vast quantities of stolen copper is the next stop. From there, it can be shredded or smelted before being loaded on to cargo ships bound for destinations around the world.
Back in his cramped outhouse, TwoSix celebrated by first giving money to his mum, who scraped a living cleaning houses in the wealthy suburbs far from their home. He built himself a proper shower to go with his outhouse. He sent some money to his sister who worked as a teacher. For the first time since leaving prison, he bought new clothes. Even feeding a growing nyaope habit, TwoSix still had money left over when his friend reappeared six months later. He shook his head at the recollection. “Sausages, he did all that to attract me. He wanted me to join them.”
The crimes weren’t victimless, of course. The impact of copper theft is widespread and devastating. City Power, Johannesburg’s main power utility, reported the cost of replacing cables stolen between July 2022 and February this year at R380mn ($21mn). Industries hit by outages include water, sanitation, hospitals, road traffic signals, telecommunications, banking, security services and small businesses, according to City Power spokesperson Isaac Mangena.
Not all the metal makes it out of the country, or even out of the city. “To our knowledge, a lot of the cable that is stolen is used for illegal electrical connections in the townships,” Quintin Starkey, chair of South Africa’s Metal Recyclers Association, told me. He said that one reason the government frequently avoided highlighting copper theft is because it would reveal the inadequacy of public services, including patchy electricity supply.
Power outages — due to ageing coal-fired power stations, theft and corruption — have slashed the country’s economic growth to a predicted 0.3 per cent this year. Ahead of elections next year, the blackouts are a daily reminder of the ANC’s inability to deliver the universal electricity and economic growth it promised.
Using stolen copper is so common that izinyoka nyoka — “snakes upon snakes” — is immediately understood to mean the dangerous and illegal connections, inexpertly wired up, that crawl out of township homes, businesses, even schools. Still, rage at copper thieves has sometimes bubbled up into vigilante justice. Suspects have been assaulted by angry residents; in one case last December, a suspected thief was beaten to death.
TwoSix knew the risks he was taking, and he knew the wider impact of his actions. But copper offered him a way out when he couldn’t see any other. He’d been smoking nyaope on and off since he was 16, after a friend had suggested they try it together because marijuana no longer got them high. Within a year, they’d both dropped out of school.
He missed learning maths, but it was easy to lie to his mother, a single parent whose double shifts meant she was rarely home. Not that the roughly one in six black students who clawed their way through the underfunded public school system each year were faring much better, as far as TwoSix could tell. For the one-third of young people who manage to find employment in South Africa, average income is about 3.5 times lower in black households.
His dream of one day owning a hardware and repair shop seemed impossibly out of reach by the time he turned to crime. Six months after his first robbery, he hesitated only a second before welcoming Sausages into his outhouse again. Once more, his friend made it sound simple. There would be some light physical work dismantling railway tracks, he said, but nothing complicated.
When Sausages arrived the following night, there were four other strangers sitting in the pick-up truck. In the back were the tools they needed: workman’s gloves, industrial wire cutters, spades and pickaxes, ammeters and headlamps.
Nobody spoke a word.
They drove to Midway train station, in the daytime a bustling commuter station connecting peripheral suburbs to uptown business hubs. Turning past the deserted station, they came to a stretch where the tracks ran past boggy marshlands and overgrown grass. Sausages immediately located the cable and switches to turn off the electricity supply — an unfailing routine, TwoSix would learn, that could only come from having inside information.
Then Sausages pointed to a spot in the ground. “Straight,” he told the gang, lifting his finger to a landmark barely visible 70 metres away. “The cables go straight underground up to there.”
They began digging.
TwoSix trusted Sausages implicitly. “He knows where to check for security guards. He knows,” he mimed making a phone call, “all the top people. In fact, if there’s a place where there’s copper, it’s them who called him. Either the security, or the cops, or somebody who works there. It’s always an inside job.”
When I asked TwoSix if what he was doing scared him, he raised his eyebrows. “Yes, I was scared. You are only seeing the lights far away, and cars passing. Not so many cars, you know, at night. And the police can show up at any time.”
Sure enough, about an hour in to the Midway job, the beams of a car approached. The lookout whistled to signal it was someone official. “We switched off our headlights and just lay down in the grass,” TwoSix said.
After the cops drove off and they resumed work, he was painfully aware as another two hours ticked by. The only sound was the wind and the scrape of their spades against the stony earth. They continued digging, cutting, pulling, throwing the cables on to the pick-up. Finally the work was done.
TwoSix doesn’t remember what his cut was — that blurred into all the other jobs. He remembers only that he was very happy. “I went shopping to buy clothes, shoes. I remember I gave my mother R15,000 [$815].”
A decade-long spree followed, taking him to power stations, substations, train stations, underground stations, waterwork plants, sewage plants and depots. On a small job, they’d haul away maybe 20 kilogrammes of copper and have to return a week later. On a big job, there would be up to 15 of them, some from neighbouring countries like Zimbabwe or Lesotho.
The more heists TwoSix carried out, the more Sausages confided in him. He began accompanying the boss on stake-outs, spending hours sitting in a car watching security guards change shifts. “When you were not [stealing], you have to check all the information,” TwoSix said. “Sometimes you stay the whole day just watching who is coming and going.”
He told his mother the daily pick-ups were friends giving him a lift to a new building site job. “If she knew [the truth], she would have kicked me out a long time ago.”
He remembered he smoked a lot. And he remembered a pain below his heart that sometimes felt like all the breath was being squeezed out of him.
One January morning in 2011, Ross Bartley received some alarming news at the Brussels headquarters of the Bureau of International Recycling. A high-speed, cross-border train had collided with a freight train in the Netherlands, baffling investigators. It took a few weeks before they were able to confirm a signal failure had been caused by the removal of a few metres of copper cabling on the line between Arnhem and the German border town of Emmerich.
As the head of trade and environment at an organisation that represents more than 30,000 companies around the world, Bartley is partly responsible for keeping on top of recycling in sectors ranging from metals to paper. A train derailing in western Europe was part of a sharp uptick in worldwide cases where thieves were cutting through cable or removing track to find copper. “So someone has stolen something worth perhaps $10 or $20, and a train crashed,” said Bartley. “The consequences of metal being stolen far outweigh the value of what is stolen.”
This kind of crime has led to a new problem: governments clamping down on scrap metal exports. Roughly a third of countries currently have export restrictions in place, in theory to try to shore up domestic supply. Last November, South Africa implemented a six-month ban on exports of scrap copper — including, for example, copper cables — saying it would help reduce an annual cost of R45bn ($2.45bn) for state-owned businesses from copper theft. But the embargo still allows for processed copper, including melted, sheared or alloy metal, to exit ports as long as the proper permits are acquired.
Industry insiders say traffickers are simply skirting the ban by using fake export tariff codes and mislabelling cargo as anything ranging from fruit to textiles. “People who are at the point of committing this kind of crime, I doubt they’re developing a conscience at the moment where they’re making export declarations,” said MacKay, the trade advisory chief.
Other government policies include greater policing presence and plans to ban cash payments for scrap metal. But even as a growing number of lower-level thieves are being caught and prosecuted, kingpins continue to dodge enforcement at every stage, analysts say. “Until you start investigating and prosecuting the top people involved in the scrap business, the market rate is not going to drop,” said Jenni Irish-Qhobosheane, a researcher at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.
After Mafia died, TwoSix felt a knot of dread in his belly whenever Sausages’ white pick-up pulled up outside his house. For the first time, no matter how much nyaope he smoked, he couldn’t get out of his head. And the pain under his ribs kept growing, at times pulsing to the point of paralysis. “I really tried to find a job after that,” he said. “If I had a job, I wouldn’t do this.”
He tried quitting nyaope, too, but gave up after severe withdrawal cramps kept him awake, shivering violently, for 48 hours. When his repeated attempts to go cold turkey started to interfere with his ability to work, he knew he had to do something drastic. So one afternoon, without telling anyone, he packed a small backpack and set off to a province 300 kilometres north-east of the city, where his father owned a small farm.
In the rolling hills and mango groves of his boyhood county, he found peace. He also found a state safety net that, functioning at its best, can save lives. “I went to the clinic, and I told the doctor I have a problem smoking nyaope,” he recalled. The medic said she would apply to get him on a social grant and enrol him into a government-run rehab centre that day. After 12 weeks in rehab, TwoSix felt in control for the first time in his adult life. But there was news awaiting him: test results showed the pain around his left rib was stomach cancer.
Now when he sees the people from his past life, TwoSix greets them and hurries on. “I don’t stay more than five minutes,” he said one morning, hunching his thin shoulders. “When I found out that I have cancer, I knew that my life is short.”
The more we talked, the more he pointed out, in a matter-of-fact way, how insidious the work of copper gangs is. Once we stood in a nondescript strip mall car park, where he had insisted we meet, and he pointed at overhead telephone cables. “Now they’re using aluminium there. They know that people will steal [copper].” A few minutes later, he gestured at a car that was missing its back windows. The doors, he explained, had been adapted to hide AK-47s in case of a stop-and-search. It was a getaway car.
One morning, TwoSix said he would show me the electrical substation where his friend Mafia died. It was the first time he wanted to meet somewhere that wasn’t utterly anonymous. He had not been back since the raid, and his voice was barely a whisper as we set off through the township. We walked past the local supermarket that TwoSix had attempted to rob. An armed guard was stationed outside frisking would-be customers. “That place got burnt down during riots,” in the pandemic, TwoSix said.
It was 9am and next to the local primary school, with its vegetable garden and broken windows, a group of teenage boys were swigging beers and laughing over the sound of a boombox.
As we approached the train station, behind which lay the substation, TwoSix paused. A group of perhaps a dozen men were loitering outside. They were part of a rival gang, he said. “Those guys like to fight,” he muttered, skirting past them in a wide arc.
We walked in front of a brightly coloured mural depicting heroes of the anti-apartheid movement. There, under a makeshift lean-to, were some of the friends he’d spent the past decade with, both on and off the job. Waif-thin men with hollow, flighty eyes. The sickly scent of nyaope hung in a thick cloud.
One of them strode up to TwoSix and shoved him. TwoSix lifted his hands in a conciliatory gesture and stepped back. That seemed to annoy the man. He pushed TwoSix again, a needle stuck in his bicep flapping around. All at once, at least 10 men encircled us, raising their voices. TwoSix turned and ran. I followed. “Maybe,” he said, as we turned down a quiet backstreet, “they don’t have money to smoke, so they’re taking their stress out on us.”
TwoSix knew every escape route in the vicinity. Sausages had once said that was one of his assets, he told me in his usual quiet voice. He walked down a red-dust path, past an overgrown garden improbably filled with classical statues, and through another narrow pathway. The foliage opened up, and there was the substation, its pylons glinting in the morning sun. A security van was parked in front. TwoSix stared for a while without saying anything.
“You know, smoking, you get really high. When you are high, you can do anything. You’re not ashamed,” he said finally. He meant ashamed to openly steal, but also the quieter, deeper shame of being poor, of feeling helpless. “When you’re high, like, everything you do —,” he touched the side of his head, “you don’t think.”
He closed his eyes for a moment and, when he opened them again, he caught sight of his former friends advancing slowly and unsteadily towards us over the train tracks. One of them tripped flat over a sleeper, then sat up and remained there shaking his head.
“I think it’s time to go now,” TwoSix said.
Chemo wasn’t an option, because of the tumour’s size and location. Instead there are half a dozen different medications and morphine — 10-millilitre injections and tablets three times a day, which explained the persistent chemical smell — and a growing lump that makes him walk stiffly on one side. There are monthly check-ins with the oncologist and fortnightly check-ins with his probation officer. There are still no jobs, but there’s a painstakingly managed government cheque of R1,900 ($104) each month.
After he came out of rehab, TwoSix threw away his phone, partly to avoid the dealers, but mainly to avoid succumbing to Sausages’ smooth talk. Then the pandemic hit and, with it, an orgy of copper theft as facilities were left empty and unguarded. The free-for-all meant there was no need for manpower, so Sausages stopped looking.
The last he’d heard, his former boss was running a farm with a couple of hundred cattle and a computer repair shop on the side in a city a four-hour drive away. “Maximum kg there,” TwoSix said, referring to the thousands of kilogrammes of copper probably available in a place with fewer rival gangs and poorer policing. Sausages, he added, occasionally called TwoSix’s mother to send money for both of them.
For TwoSix, every day has taken on a predictable routine: he stays home, cleans the house, watches television. Recently he found himself repeatedly watching Apocalypse Now, a film about what can send a man down the road to madness. “I know it’s an old film, but I never saw it before,” he said, flashing an embarrassed gap-toothed smile. “Now I can see what I did was wrong. I never imagined my life this way. Never,” he said, looking out at an empty parking lot the last time we met. “Maybe I’d have stopped [stealing] even without a job, but I don’t think so. Because you still have to eat.”
Sometimes, he dreams of Mafia’s death. The sound of the explosion, the ground rushing to meet him. Except when his head torch penetrates the blackness, it’s not his friend lying dead. It’s him.
Monica Mark is a journalist in Johannesburg
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