Safety last, and no power to the people…

February 3rd, 2016, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: Energize, Articles: Vector

 

The general public is regularly encouraged to report illegal electricity connections, and while some may choose to turn a blind eye and let the poor steal what government has not yet provided, other citizens do what they are asked to do and call the designated municipal and Eskom hotlines.

In a growing city such as Johannesburg, home to many informal settlements – especially on the outskirts – illegal connections and electricity theft run rampant. The route from Johannesburg to EE Publishers’ offices passes an illegal connection hot-spot – the Zandspruit informal settlement in the Honeydew area.

Driving north along Beyers Naude Drive towards Muldersdrift, leading up to the intersection with Peter Road, one passes beneath what can best be described as an “umbrella” of wires, from the tops of streetlight poles, and between trees and structures on either side of the road. More creative observers aptly refer to the hundreds of illegal connections in plain view as “electric spaghetti”.

On 5 December 2015, and twice thereafter, EE Publishers’ managing director and investigative editor, Chris Yelland, posted photographs of the tangle of wires on Twitter, bringing them to the attention of both Eskom and City Power Johannesburg.

While there was no reaction at all from City Power, to his credit, Eskom spokesman Khulu Phasiwe drove to Zandspruit on a Saturday morning to see the problem for himself, despite question marks as to whether this was a City Power or an Eskom problem. Phasiwe duly reported back that he had seen what he had to see, and had escalated the matter to Eskom’s area manager, who had arranged to have similar illegal connections in the Zandspruit area removed in the past.

The problem, of course is that the illegal connections simply reappear. This is hardly surprising as there is a significant demand for electricity in the township, while after 18+ years of its existence, only 268 households have been electrified by Eskom (in 2004), while the balance of some 16 000 residents remain “powerless”.

Clearly massive electricity theft is taking place, but a more immediate concern is safety. Hundreds if not thousands of unregulated and illegal live wires run through the settlement, where many dwellings are made of corrugated iron. This makes for an extremely dangerous environment, in which there have been reports of electrocutions, including the death of an infant, and in a separate unrelated incident in December 2015, the death of a young father.

Asked whether it was aware of the electrocution of the baby, City Power’s response was: “We are not aware of the incident as this area falls under Eskom”. Eskom’s response to the same question was: “Yes, Eskom is aware of the incident. The matter was investigated and there was no physical evidence to connect Eskom to the incident. Upon arrival at the scene, residents had already removed the illegal connections in the house where the incident took place”. Yet still nothing was done by Eskom or City Power to remove the hundreds of other dangerous and illegal connections to the other dwellings in plain view in Zandspruit.

But despite the ducking and diving by Eskom and City Power, the question remains – who is actually responsible for electricity reticulation in Zandspruit, and for removing these illegal and dangerous electricity connections?

City Power and Eskom both agree that while the City of Johannesburg is responsible for powering the streetlights and high mast area lighting in Zandspruit, Eskom Distribution is responsible for electrification, electricity reticulation and electricity supply to the households in the area. Simple logic, common sense and morality surely dictate that instead of finger pointing, Eskom and the City of Johannesburg, as organs of state, should be working together to deal with the illegal connections, electricity theft and the associated safety issues.

Yet despite Chris Yelland having further reported this matter in writing in early January 2016 to the highest levels at both City Power and Eskom, and obtaining two reference numbers from the Eskom Call Centre on 8 January (reference number 163719435 for the safety emergency for which a response time of 24 hours was promised, and reference number 163719433 for the less urgent matter of electricity theft), absolutely nothing has been done to date to attend to the illegal connections.

With regular violent service delivery protests in Zandspruit along Beyers Naude Drive, and local government elections coming up in 2016, it is surely time for government, Eskom and City Power to get their acts together and provide the residents of Zandspruit, who have been waiting for 18+ years, with a basic and safe electricity service. The policy and regulatory frameworks are well established, and the implementing agencies are in place – so what are we waiting for?

Perhaps it is time for Eskom and City Power to be prosecuted by the Department of Labour for their gross negligence in failing to ensure compliance with the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the associated Electrical Installation Regulations, and the mandatory Code of Practice for the Wiring of Premises, SANS 10142 Part 1. This failure has already led to loss of life.

But perhaps that would be just too much to expect.

  • Johan

    If we remove (and by we i mean local municipalities) the illegal connections, our vehicles gets stoned and our lives put in danger, the police just stand idly by and do nothing. So where do we draw the line ?

    • Joe Soap

      The police will “monitor the situation”.

  • I believe as a start, Eskom should begin electrification, funded by the DoE as per the normal arrangements. At the same time the illegal connections should be cleared by Eskom and City Power, protected by SAPS.

    • Many (perhaps most, or even all) of the structures in the “informal settlements” are constructed in violation of appropriate building regulations. That seems to raise questions around the legality (or even feasibility in terms of user safety) of electrical installations in those premises. Does anyone have any firm detail in this respect?
      Once the technical feasibility questions are answered, there remains that of payment for energy consumption: installation of prepaid metering has already met with violent reaction in some areas, credit-account metering is vulnerable to a culture of non-payment for services, while demanding the ongoing provision of those services.
      All in all, more questions than answers, it seems.

  • Response from City Power

    18 February 2016; 05h28

    Good Morning Chris

    Your correspondence regarding the exposed wiring from the light poles and the subsequent fatalities that has resulted thereof refers.

    City Power’s infrastructure is often a target of vandalism and theft, and the vulnerability of its expansive network of street light poles is also a source of illegal connections. City Power daily contends with unscrupulous individuals who offer illegal connection services in poorer communities. These individuals have turned this activity into an entrepreneurial venture.

    We periodically conduct operations with members of the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department (JMPD) to remove these illegal connections, but as soon as we leave, the services of these entrepreneurs are sought to reconnect the illegal connections. The involvement of law agencies is also for the safety of our employees. We have appealed and continue to plead with communities to report these individuals and any illegal activities to City Power and to law enforcement agencies so that we can clamp down on these illegal connections and reduce these senseless and tragic fatalities. In the past few months, the timers that are installed on street lights have become a target of unabated theft. This has resulted in street lights illuminating throughout the day, a situation that drastically reduced the lifespan of the lamps and which also frustrated efforts to conserve electricity.

    With reference to the Zandspruit area, City Power will be conducting an operation with the JMPD and the South African Police Services (SAPS) to have the illegal connections removed on Tuesday, 03 March. This is a temporary intervention with limited effectiveness as the illegal connections will be back again in a few days. Secondly, we will be engaging with the community to discuss a permanent solution concerning public lights. The proposed solution that is being considered is the installation of 30 metre street lights where the battery, inveter and fuses are located 10 meter above the ground, which is out of reach for a member of the public. City Power piloted the installation of 14 meter lights, but these were vandalized.

    City Power has extended the invitation to Eskom to join in the operation. We are awaiting response in this regard. Eskom and City Power have had several discussions on Zandspruit, led by the Member of the Mayoral Committee, Councillor Matshidiso Mfikoe. Eskom raised concerns about land ownership in this area, but their concerns have since been allayed. The discussions with Eskom resolved that the City will have to temporarily relocate people to allow Eskom to electrify the area. The Department of Housing has been hard at work trying to secure an alternative area where the residents of Zandspruit will be relocated, but this process has not been concluded yet. The electrification of Zandspruit is part of Eskom’s 2016/17 Electrification. Currently the project is at design stage.

    I hope that we can continue to work together to address these issues facing the industry. The extent to which we succeed in tackling these challenges hinges on the active cooperation of the utilities and other stakeholders like yourself and members of the public.

    Sincerely

    Yumna Sheik

    Aide-de-Camp

    Office of the Managing Director, Sicelo Xulu

    City Power

  • Evert Swanepoel

    Whilst a large amount of electrical cable is stolen to be exported, we should not underestimate the volume of cable that is stolen for illegal connections.