The Madadeni Regional Court in South Africa has convicted and sentenced Sifiso Mchunu (45) for the theft of tower batteries from MTN and Vodacom cellular tower dating back to June 2017. The sentencing, which occurred on Tuesday, 7 November 2023, follows over six years since Mchunu’s initial arrest.
The arrest was made possible by Hawks officers from the Head Office Serious Organised Crime Investigation. Acting on intel regarding a vehicle transporting tower batteries from Newcastle to Johannesburg, authorities intercepted the vehicle at Villiers. After searching the vehicle, 32 tower batteries were recovered. The batteries are valued at approximately R192,000.
Further investigations by Newcastle Serious Organised Crime Investigation revealed that the stolen batteries were from MTN and Vodacom towers in Madadeni. Sifiso Mchunu’s partner in crime, Phakamani Ncube (38), was also apprehended and charged with possessing suspected stolen property and damaging essential infrastructure. Both suspects were initially released on bail.
While Ncube pleaded guilty in August 2018, receiving a five-year direct imprisonment sentence, Mchunu opted for trial. Found guilty last week, he now faces a 10-year imprisonment term, with five years suspended under the condition that he avoids conviction for theft during the suspension period. The Madadeni community awaits further developments as justice is served.
Criminal syndicates target South Africa’s mobile network infrastructure for high-value batteries
Criminal syndicates are increasingly focusing on South Africa’s mobile network infrastructure, specifically targeting high-capacity batteries with lucrative black market values.
Vodacom CEO, Shameel Joosub revealed that the company allocates R1 billion annually to battery expenses alone. While MTN has not detailed its capital expenditure in the same way, recent reports indicate monthly spending of approximately R1.1 billion from June to September, emphasizing the need for enhanced network capacity and resilience amid load-shedding challenges.
MTN disclosed that attacks on its towers and battery theft have escalated to crisis proportions. In the Eastern Cape alone, 390 MTN base stations fell victim to vandalism last year, some experiencing multiple incidents. Additionally, certain sites were targeted up to 15 times, resulting in over 1,000 incidents within the province for the year.
Mobile operators are employing innovative measures to safeguard their infrastructure, such as encasing generators and batteries in reinforced concrete. Also, protective measures include applying a combination of epoxy and glass around battery housings, preventing criminals from cutting through them with power tools like grinders.
“Some of [the] actions taken include beefing up security significantly,” MTN communications and sustainability head Jacqui O’Sullivan told MyBroadband in February.
“Measures include hiring the private security company Bidvest, installing CCTV, cementing/hardening our battery storage, and introducing cement and heavy steel safehouse carriages.”
Byron Kennedy, spokesperson for Vodacom, emphasized that the company has intensified security protocols to thwart theft and apprehend perpetrators. Kennedy conveyed a firm warning to criminals, stating that targeting their base stations would result in apprehension and prosecution.
Safeguarding mobile networks
Telecom companies are adopting advanced solutions such as surveillance systems and artificial intelligence to fortify their defences. These innovations not only enhance security measures but also serve as deterrents to potential wrongdoers.
Collaboration with law enforcement agencies plays a crucial role in this battle against criminal activities. Joint task forces are formed to address root causes, while community engagement initiatives seek to raise awareness about the broader impact of theft on network reliability.
Telecom operators are not only bolstering their defences but actively engaging in legislative advocacy. Support for measures addressing specific challenges posed by criminal activities reflects a commitment to long-term solutions and a legal framework that acts as a deterrent.
Zooming out to a global perspective, South Africa shares common ground with international counterparts facing similar challenges. Comparing and adopting successful strategies from global experiences contributes to a more resilient mobile network infrastructure.
Combining strengthened security measures, technological innovations, collaborative initiatives, legislative advocacy, and insights from global experiences, telecom companies aim to safeguard the backbone of digital connectivity, ensuring uninterrupted services for the communities they serve.
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