How to steal power from a city… and its people

Illegal connections on a electricity pylon in Johannesburg, 18 July 2019. Picture: Nigel Sibanda

Illegal connections on a electricity pylon in Johannesburg, 18 July 2019. Picture: Nigel Sibanda

Regular blackouts in the Joburg area are being exacerbated by illegal connections… and City Power subcontractors are the guilty parties.

Blackouts lasting weeks at a time, leading to protests, ultimately leading to Joburg mayor Herman Mashaba being forced to intervene and approach Eskom for a solution…

These were just some of the scenes which played out in Johannesburg in recent weeks. But they are by no means restricted to Gauteng and may become even more commonplace as Eskom starts to clamp down on illegal connections and nonpayment by cutting power supply to entire areas.

The recent Soweto blackouts, which were caused by the overloading of the Eskom network as a result of meter bypasses, illegal connections and tampering, have also brought the spotlight on subcontractors working for Johannesburg’s City Power, who are accused of soliciting bribes from residents who don’t want their electricity cut off.

While Eskom and City Power are battling to keep the lights on, some subcontractors are profiting from, and even exacerbating the problem, while officially charged to do exactly the opposite.

Picture: Nigel Sibanda

One of the subcontractors for City Power in Soweto, who did not want to be identified, said for subcontractors, reconnecting nonpaying or illegally connected users was an alternative way to make money because they simply do not get paid enough.

“The temptation is always there because if someone offers you money upfront to bypass the meter or connect them illegally, you take the money because City Power doesn’t pay its subcontractors well,” he said.

“I can tell you for a fact that most of the guys who do the illegal connections and tampering of meter boxes are guys who work for City Power. They go around the whole of Johannesburg, from Sandton to Soweto, to get extra business from people who have been cut off by Eskom.”

The source, a professional engineer who runs his own business, said he had also illegally connected numerous houses around Freedom Park, Diepkloof, and Orlando in Soweto to make extra money.

He said the amount charged for an illegal connection varied according to the area you lived in, and how much you could afford. Contractors could earn between R5,000 and R10,000 extra a month doing the connections.

Picture: Nigel Sibanda

The power utility said there was an increasing number of repeated equipment failures in some areas, especially within Gauteng, due to illegal connections, leading to overloading which resulted in failure of transformers and mini substations.

“This is exacerbated by meter tampering, electricity theft and vandalism of infrastructure. Eskom has taken a decision that it will not be restoring power to areas that have repeated failures due to illegal connections, meter tampering and bypassing,” said Eskom group executive for distribution Monde Bala.

Bala said Eskom would only restore supply to legal and paying customers in the areas on condition that the community allowed safe access to Eskom staff to conduct audits and remove illegal connections.

This, predictably, has not gone down well in some areas, such as Soweto, which owes Eskom approximately R18 billion in overdue electricity payments.

Eskom said it had been a challenge to conduct audits in most areas because communities chased away its staff members.

“If we do not conduct the audits, we run the risk of continued failures without dealing with the root cause,” said the utility. “In some areas, Eskom technicians have not been allowed to conduct these audits, which result in repeated failures of equipment, making power restoration a wasteful exercise.”

One of the affected residents from Office number 1 in Rockville, Soweto, Nonozi Matshe, said she had been without electricity for nearly two months, even though she had paid her electricity bill.

She said that normal chores like cooking and washing had become much more difficult without electricity and they had no idea when the problem would be resolved.

City Power responds

Johannesburg’s electricity provider City Power has confirmed it is aware some of its technicians and contractors solicited bribes from residents to illegally connect electricity.

It warned residents not to allow any person onto their property without first verifying their credentials.

City Power spokesperson Isaac Mangena said employees and contractors would have a City Power identity card that was colour-coded for specific sections within City Power.

Mangena said the colour blue was used for permanent employees and the card would display a photo of the employee or contractor carrying it, their name, identification number and expiry date.

“We have become aware of imposters and urge residents to be highly vigilant and report any suspicious persons or vehicles. Security risk control will dispatch a response vehicle immediately to apprehend suspects,” said Mangena.

He said City Power was working with the City of Joburg’s group forensics officials to make such arrests.

“Customers are always urged to contact our anonymous tip-off line, 0800-002-587 to report such incidents,” he said.

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