Monica Mark’s reporting is smart, informative, and empathetic in this piece delving into the world of the thieves who risk it all, not for gold — but for copper.

The copper thieves were known as izinyoka, “snakes” in Zulu, and they barely made a sound as they prepared early one morning. On the porch of a rundown breezeblock home in Johannesburg’s largest township, the three men pulled on their disguise of municipal workers’ coveralls, then shared a smoke. The air filled with clouds of nyaope, a cocktail of black-tar heroin cut with marijuana, rat poison and antiretroviral drugs.