Electricity pylons. Photo: THINKSTOCK

THE Federation of Unions of South Africa (Fedusa) is calling on President Jacob Zuma to prioritise "the rising levels of cable theft" in the country, which it says is responsible for recent train accidents.

It says it fully endorses calls by Transport Minister Ben Martin and by the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) for the "crime" of cable theft to be upgraded to attempted homicide.

The United Transport and Allied Workers’ Union (Utatu) and the South African Railworkers’ Union (SARWHU), which merged last year to form Utatu SARWHU, a trade union affiliated with Fedusa, sharply criticised Mr Zuma for not "explicitly" referring to cable theft in his state of the nation address.

It questioned, on Monday, why Mr Zuma did not regard cable theft as "important enough" to include in his summary last week of challenges faced by the country.

"President Zuma cannot possibly be unaware of the recent train accidents caused by cable thefts. His Cabinet ministers know what’s going on and are deeply concerned," the union’s general secretary, Steve Harris, said on Monday.

Last month, about 300 people were injured when two trains in Atteridgeville in Pretoria crashed into each other. At the time, Prasa said the accident was caused by cable theft.

Mr Harris said there would be "no denting" the level of cable theft until a sufficient number of perpetrators were "behind bars for long enough to make the risk unattractive".

Fedusa estimated cable theft cost South Africa "a whopping" R5bn a year in lost productivity. It also said it had identified scrap-metal dealers who bought the stolen cable from thieves as a "major part" of the problem.

Earlier this month, the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry said the past year had shown a "favourable downward trend" for copper theft, despite a slight uptick in December.

But it said "vigilance" against the copper theft criminal network, from the "petty criminal to the international exporter" must continue.

"The unfortunate train accident … (in) January near Atteridgeville in Pretoria, and the accompanying injuries, is a further indication that the societal cost of copper theft far exceeds the direct cost of replacing the stolen materials," it said.

However, the Second-Hand Goods Act introduced last year enabled a regulatory framework by which second- hand goods dealers and pawnshop owners could be put out of business if caught selling stolen goods.

Meanwhile, South Africa’s trade authorities were seeking to tighten exports of scrap metal from the country. They said high international prices were driving sales and destroying South African industrial capacity, along with jobs.

In January, the Department of Economic Development in a draft policy directive said this posed risks to the government’s massive infrastructure development programme over the next 15 years.

The Metal Recyclers' Association of South Africa said on Monday it was not in a position to make any statements at this time.