South Africa’s rail, port and pipeline authority, Transnet, has lost approximately 8.5 million litres of fuel – valued at R102 million – to theft over the past year.
In addition to managing South Africa’s major ports and railway freight, Transnet is responsible for transporting petrol and diesel from refineries to fuel companies. This supply is channelled through a network of high-pressure pipelines.
Spanning 3,500km across five provinces, Transnet’s pipelines carry approximately 16 billion litres of liquid fuel each year. But not all this fuel reaches its intended destination.
“The tampering and damage to the pipeline because of theft continues to remain the biggest threat to the security of fuel supply, particularly to the inland areas,” said Transnet’s spokesperson, Ayanda Shezi, in 2020.
Transnet’s warnings about the risks posed by brazen fuel theft come amid several raids which resulted in fires and explosions. The attempted theft of fuel from a pipeline in Alberton, Ekurhuleni, at the end of 2019 forced 40 households to evacuate and was also blamed for a devastating crude oil spill in Durban the following year.
And while the illicit siphoning of fuel from Transnet’s pipes poses a direct danger to nearby communities, its also costing the state owned enterprise millions of rands a month. This comes at a particularly bad time for Transnet, which was hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequently downgraded by global ratings agency Fitch.
In responding to a series of Parliamentary questions on the financial impact of fuel stolen from Transnet’s pipelines, Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan painted a grim picture.
In the 2019/2020 financial year, 11.9 million litres of fuel – calculated at a Basic Fuel Price (BFP) of R147 million – was stolen from Transnet. These losses resulted from 143 actual theft incidents and 38 attempted theft incidents.
In 2020/2021, while South Africa languished under varying levels of lockdown to mitigate the spread of Covid-19, 134 actual theft incidents were recorded. This cost the embattled company R102 million.
To deal with the rampant theft of its fuel loads, Transnet issued a tender for surveillance drones and equipped its security officers with pistols and semi-automatic rifles. A team of investigators are also tasked with gathering evidence which would lead to successful prosecutions and guards are expected to "engage in hostile situations".
To supplement these specialised aerial surveillance and tactical security deployments confirmed by Gordhan, Transnet has also been promised support from the South African National Defence Force (SANDF).
“In addition, there are specific anti-intrusion systems that are in the process of being implemented along the pipeline system,” said Gordhan, who added that a “Transnet Group Security Fusion Centre” was in the process of being established.
To date, only one conviction for the theft of fuel from Transnet’s pipelines has been secured, while 58 tankers have been seized and 146 suspects charged.