Image shows bridge damaged by earthquake in Japan, not by criminals in South Africa

Social media users are circulating a picture of a damaged bridge with claims that foreigners in South Africa stripped the structure so that they could sell the materials. This is false: the picture shows damage caused to a bridge in Japan following an earthquake in 2004.

“Whether it is ‘undocumented foreign nationals’ or South Africans themselves is regardless. This needs to be fixed immediately before collapse,” reads a tweet published on February 23, 2023.

A screenshot of the false tweet, taken on March 3, 2023

The picture shows a large cylindrical bridge pier. Part of the concrete has been badly eroded, leaving a notable portion of exposed reinforcement steel.

Similar posts were shared on Facebook (here and here). On Twitter, the same claim was made (here and here) alongside a second picture of a car boot full of rebar and two heavy-duty cable cutters.

A screenshot of the false tweet featuring the rebar and cable cutters

Inflammatory responses to the posts included anti-immigrant views. The United Nations warned in July 2022 of escalating xenophobic violence and racial discrimination against foreign nationals.

However, the claims about the bridge falling prey to foreign vandals in South Africa are false.

Japan earthquake

Some comments in the posts said the picture was old and taken in Japan.

Using this clue, AFP Fact Check performed a reverse image search and found several references to a deadly earthquake that struck the Niigata Prefecture in Japan on October 23, 2004.

Photo showing the aftermath of a series of powerful earthquakes in central Japan, 24 October 24, 2004 ( JIJI PRESS)

The disaster killed more than 40 people and injured at least 4,000. The cost of the damage was estimated at around ¥3 trillion (approximately US$22 billion).

The photo of the compromised bridge shows the aftermath of this devastating earthquake.

Another angle of the damage to the bridge can be seen in a January 2005 report detailing preliminary observations from the earthquake.

A screenshot of the damaged bridge in a 2005 report

Pictures of the “damaged piers of Joetsu Shinkansen Wanazu Bridge” were featured in other official reports after the earthquake.

AFP Fact Check compared the picture circulating in the false posts with a picture from the official reports. Despite the different angles, the piers in both pictures are the same; matching elements include the black-and-yellow vertical measuring tape and distinctly shaped defects in the concrete.

A comparison of the pictures, marked to show similarities on the bridge pillars

Other posts on social media placed the structure in Uganda, but that was debunked by Kenya’s verification website PesaCheck.

AFP Fact Check tried with no avail to locate the source of the second image showing a car boot full of metal rods. However, the image does not support the claim that the bridge was vandalised by foreigners.

Cable theft in South Africa

Cable theft and general vandalism are long-standing issues that continue to hamper South Africa’s growth. Local media reported in February 2023 that the City of Johannesburg alone spent more than R380 million (approximately $21 million) in the previous eight months (July 2022 - February 2023) on repairs.

The spree has increased exponentially with thieves taking advantage of rotational power cuts known as loadshedding (here and here).

Screenshot of the February 23, 2023 Times Live article

South Africa is in the midst of a severe energy crisis, with record blackouts that have impeded economic growth and angered the population.

President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a national state of disaster in February 2023, as well as the creation of an electricity ministry, in response to the energy crisis.