M1 fire is just the beginning of unchecked zama zama illegal activity

Joburg EMS fire brigade arrive at the M1, where City Power cables have caught fire due to suspected cable theft and vandalism. Picture: Supplied

Joburg EMS fire brigade arrive at the M1, where City Power cables have caught fire due to suspected cable theft and vandalism. Picture: Supplied

Published May 8, 2024


Failure to heed security experts’ warnings about the need to curb the growing prevalence of illegal zama zama and phenduka activities through informed intelligence will see the damage of even more critical infrastructure, experts warn.

While the City of Johannesburg forges ahead with fixing electricity infrastructure damaged after an underground fire broke out on the M1 on May 1, and City Power awaits a response from the national police commissioner Fannie Masemola on its call for army intervention, experts warn that efforts to curb illegal activity have been wholly misdirected.

Yesterday City Power CEO Tshifularo Mashava was reported to have written to the police commissioner for the urgent deployment of the army following the M1 fire in Johannesburg, however, forensic expert Calvin Rafadi said while Mashava’s heart was in the right place, her request for help was misdirected.

If anything, Rafadi explained, Mashava should have directed her letter to the Presidency, the Minister of Defence or Parliament as they were the only ones who possessed the mandate to activate such a request.

The forensic investigator said for a long time those involved within dealing with the crime-intelligence sector had forewarned the government that its failure to address the presence of zama zama and phenduka illegal activity would one day lead to the damage of critical infrastructure, however, that warning had been ignored.

And while security stakeholders managed to fend off those attempting to steal cables following the fire, Rafadi stressed that those were not even the “big fish” or “foot soldiers” involved in supplying the black market with copper, gold and other precious materials.

“Some of the people that were alleged to have been arrested are the ones who normally sleep under those bridges and they simply took the opportunity to go quickly and try to cut some of this copper as they know that they themselves go around picking up scrap metals because they have a market, but they are not the big fish.”

Rafadi said he believed that the fire broke out as a result of fighting for turf by the zama zama and phenduka groups who had opted to suspend mining activities in light of the high attention it had received.

Should the country have any hopes of addressing the scourge of illegal mining and saving critical infrastructure from any further damage, Rafadi said it was important for law-enforcement agencies to make use of the Prevention of Organised Crime Act No 121 of 1998 (Poca) in order to gather data and intelligence to help track and arrest the proceeds of crime.

Legislation such as Poca as well as the Financial Intelligence Centre Act No 38 of 2001 (Fica) were, according to the expert, key pieces of legislation aimed at addressing the scourge of money laundering and organised crime.

“The reality is that the Asset Forfeiture Unit and the South African Revenue Services (Sars) are not playing their role which would help law enforcement to seize the proceeds of crime and make a real dent in the black market supply.

“Right now these people are sitting cosy in places like Cape Town and Sandton, but if the country steps up makes use of those pieces of legislation and upped its crime intelligence and data gathering efforts we will be able to track and locate these people through their exorbitant spending sprees with the help of the banks,” he added.

Attempts to reach out to City Power CEO for further comment proved unsuccessful by the time of publication.

The Star