The operation of cellphone networks are being hampered as criminal syndicates targeting cellphone towers to steal their batteries across South Africa.
This year alone, 153 batteries were stolen in Cape Town, 34 batteries in George, 29 batteries in Swellendam, eight batteries in Beaufort West, three in Vredendal and two batteries in Port Elizabeth, according to general manager for network operations at MTN South Africa, Ernest Paul.
Twenty stolen batteries were recovered last week following four arrests made when the batteries were found at a border base in Botswana and in Pretoria. Paul said: “The selling of batteries is a big market in Zimbabwe and they are often sold on social media and Gumtree.
“There is currently load shedding happening in Zimbabwe which puts a huge demand on the need for batteries.
“Other countries also include Malawi and Mozambique.
“These sophisticated criminal syndicates impose a huge financial burden on MTN as a telco business but also on the industry as a whole.
“Battery theft and related vandalism is costing MTN hundreds of millions of rand and the impact is exorbitant, considering that as many as four to 16 batteries need to be replaced at each site,” he said.
“All operation networks are affected by the cellphone battery theft and once stolen they are used to power up small appliances. They are usually used in homes and areas where there is a lack of power supply,” he said.
Paul said it costs more than R10million to replace batteries at 100 sites and another R7m to fix the damage of cellphone towers.
Director at the South African region of Crime Stoppers International Yusuf Abramjee said: “It appears syndicates are at work. Once stolen, these batteries are being resold. It is costing the industry millions of rand and it is also causing disruptions.
“We have evidence that many of these batteries are leaving South Africa and are openly sold in countries such as Zimbabwe,” said Abramjee.
Paul said the damage to a site included the cutting of lodes, the fence and breaking the door shelter.
The copper cables were also often stolen which left the site in a very bad state.
City of Cape Town mayoral committee member for safety and security, JP Smith, said: “The cellphone battery theft is an issue and when the public is struggling to get access to a network; it is also because a tower has been disabled due to battery theft.”
Smith said the batteries were needed to be built on higher platforms on the tower to make it more difficult for thieves to get to them, however, some criminals still get ladders to climb up.