We've all heard of criminals stealing the copper wire from electrical devices (typically air conditioning units) in order to hock the metal as scrap. While this is a somewhat common practice in the States, criminals in South Africa have taken the concept to new heights.
Thefts of copper cables have become so frequent in the past several months that some communities are experiencing serious disruptions, such as power outages and water shortages. Important public services such as basic sanitation, transportation, and telecommunication are also harmed by the rash of thefts, which has drawn the attention of government authorities.
Andries Nel, the Deputy Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs for South Africa, has vowed to pursue swifter sentencing and harsher penalties to copper thieves, He believes that although common criminals are the ones physically stealing the copper cables, the crimes are orchestrated by large syndicates.
In an effort to combat these organized criminals, the South African authorities are looking into the possibility of including copper a precious metal to give prosecutors more legal ammunition to punish offenders. (In some circles, copper is considered a "semi-precious" metal.) South Africa has some of the largest precious metal deposits of gold and platinum in the world, and must closely regulate the possession thereof. If copper were to be classified in the same way, perhaps it would curb theft by creating greater risk and more far-reaching consequences for stealing copper.
Like silver, which is certainly classified as a precious metal, copper is used predominantly in industry but also has a long history of use in coinage. Considering mining mega-firm Freeport-McMoRan just sold its 80% stake in a Chilean copper mine for a cool $1.8 billion, the idea of copper as "precious" is not much of a stretch!
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