SA judges are clear – we won’t tolerate battery theft
Stealing batteries is a growth industry that will net you more jail time
By Paul Colmer, Exco member at Wireless Internet Provider’s Association (WAPA)
That three men were handed 30-year sentences each for stealing cell tower batteries sends a clear message from South Africa’s judiciary, the intent of which WAPA supports.
Telecommunications infrastructure is now essential infrastructure, which means damaging it is an aggravating factor when considering sentencing.
The change is clearly to dissuade theft and vandalism. It isn’t limited to cellular towers, but all telecommunications infrastructure, including wireless Internet service providers (Wisps), who provide critical and sometimes the sole communications for many communities.
In this landmark case, three suspects were arrested and detained following an incident near the N1. Sensors at two cellphone towers signalled a break in and police co-operated with private security to reportedly apprehend suspects stealing 24 batteries worth R135,000.
They were found guilty in May this year and sentenced on two counts. Both counts (related to each of the two towers) were for tampering with and or damaging essential infrastructure and theft of batteries.
How Imprisonment Terms have Grown
Comparative sentencing demonstrates the effects of the change. In September 2018, a man was found guilty of stealing eight batteries at the time worth R40,000. He was sentenced to five years imprisonment in Bloemfontein. In December 2021, two men were handed seven-year sentences in the Western Cape for stealing an unnamed number of cellular tower batteries.
I expect this latest sentencing to be appealed so it will be interesting to observe the final outcome.
However, this infrastructure is used by emergency services, who respond to potentially life-threatening situations and natural disasters such as the flooding we recently witnessed in KwaZulu-Natal.
But is it a Fair Sentence for Battery Theft?
On the other hand, you may argue that people who rape get shorter prison terms, so this may seem unduly harsh. First-time rapists in South Africa, without aggravating circumstances, receive a minimum of 10 years imprisonment. Second-time offenders get a minimum of 15 years, and third-time offenders get 25 years. Gang rape and other forms get life.
Whichever way you argue this, there is no denying that something must be done about telecommunications battery theft. The judiciary’s signalled intent to take it more serious is one we support. Battery theft costs South Africans of every stripe a cumulative fortune. It’s not just the cost of the battery replacements, which is in the hundreds of millions each year.
In April 2019 alone MTN says it lost 733 batteries to theft. They recovered 338 in July that year and another 275 in September worth R7 million together.
The real cost of these thefts isn’t limited to the replacement costs of the batteries. It extends to all the people who rely on communication to work and generate income. Every single South African who relies on that suffers when batteries are stolen.
It’s worth considering as we examine the real impact of crime in our communities and how we may respond. 30-year sentences seem harsh for battery theft in the context of comparatively light sentences for rape. But are they, considering the magnitude of the impacts not just now but in the long-term? We feel it during load-shedding and perhaps a few hours or days before your community Wisp reach deep into their pockets for new kit and someone to install it. But we’ll feel it much harder when your community Wisp goes out of business, taking their signal with them.