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When South Africa Cuts Off Power, Cable Thieves Move In

A security guard uses light from his mobile phone during a residential patrol in darkness during a load-shedding power outage in Pretoria, South Africa, on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019. Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd. cut supplies for the fifth day on Thursday and warned its power generation system remains "vulnerable." Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg

While most South Africans spent the past week griping about rolling power cuts, the outages proved a blessing for cable thieves, who are able to work during the blackouts without fear of electrocution.

Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd., which supplies almost all of South Africa’s electricity, imposed power cuts from Sunday through Thursday because of power-plant breakdowns. Municipal distributors like Johannesburg’s City Power are obliged to implement scheduled outages, known locally as load shedding, over large swathes of the city. In South Africa’s biggest city those typically last for about four hours.

Theft of copper cables — already a perennial problem in South Africa — “is very high during load shedding,” said Isaac Mangena, a spokesman for City Power. “The schedules we send to customers are also available to thieves who can plan to do what they want for four hours at a time.”

The sudden surge of returning power also caused explosions at sub-stations and transformers, leading to a rush of complaints from customers and delays in restoring supply. Power still wasn’t restored to the northern Johannesburg suburbs of Auckland Park and Rosebank on Friday, along with several areas in the south of the city.

Maintenance workers are taking as long as 24 hours to respond to complaints, compared with a normal response time of several hours after a fault has been lodged.

“Communities must bear with us as we try and reverse this,” City Power Chief Executive Officer Lerato Setshedi said in a separate email, adding that it will take two to three days for normal operations to resume. DM

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