South Africa


On the job with one of the unsung heroes trying to alleviate SA’s power crisis

On the job with one of the unsung heroes trying to alleviate SA’s power crisis
Norman Phahlamohlaka explaining to other electricians how to install a new transformer at a Transformer Substation in Lenasia, Extension 2, on 29 June 2022. (Photo: Julia Evans)

With South Africa in the throes of a Stage 6 power crisis, frustration is at an all-time high. But the people on the ground working to ‘put out the fires’ might just be the unsung heroes during the crisis.

Norman Phahlamohlaka has three cellphones — one for work, one for personal use and one just for his family. The batteries of his phones die by 4pm because they never stop ringing. 

Phahlamohlaka is an electrician and manager at Joburg’s City Power. He’s one of the unsung heroes trying to alleviate load shedding and this week Daily Maverick tracked him during a workday. 

Phahlamohlaka’s working day starts at 6.30am — usually, he’s gone to bed just three or four hours before. 

His first meeting is with community members in Lenasia Extension 2, which has been without power for the past five days because fuses keep on blowing at a transformer substation.  

Zulekha Ismail, who has lived in the community for more than 20 years, details some of the problems caused by the ongoing outages. 

“We’ve got a lady with Stage 4 cancer, people with diabetes taking insulin that needs to be refrigerated, people who just had operations … and mostly old people who just can’t stand the cold.”  

A group of Lawley 1 residents gathered around City Power manager Norman Phahlamohlaka expressing their grievances after they were out of power for two days. (Photo: Julia Evans)

City Power manager and electrician Norman Phahlamohlaka explaining to angry Lawley residents why they haven’t had power for the past two days, 29 June 2022. (Photo: Julia Evans)

A resident in Lenasia Extension 2 embracing Norman Phahlamohlaka in excitement after he restored power restored to his community after it was out for five days. (Photo: Julia Evans)

This is not an area where after cursing Eskom, residents turn on their generators or inverters and switch the TV back on. Residents here can’t afford that luxury, and instead, they huddle around the fires that neighbours like Ismail make in their gardens, or walk across the street with their kettle to use a gas stove. 

“You can’t leave people,” said Ismail.  “You’ve got to leave your selfishness behind. If you’re suffering with people in the community, you’re going to help each other.” 

Isaac Mangena, the spokesperson for City Power, told Daily Maverick that Lenasia has the second-highest number of reported outages after Roodepoort. 

After assessing the system, Phahlamohlaka figures out the cause of the problem: the transformer in the substation keeps on blowing because of overload — a power surge after load shedding ends, which trips the circuit. 

Mangena said City Power can’t perform planned maintenance during load shedding, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t doing anything. Their technicians are on the ground constantly trying to solve outages.  

“Inrush currents, multiple cable faults, vandalism, overloading due to the cold weather are the reasons for the trippings in most areas, especially after load shedding restorations,” said Mangena. 

Read in Daily Maverick: Pushing the limits: Why load shedding puts even more pressure on an ageing electrical system  

The transformer in Extension 2 has to be replaced, which will cost City Power R250,000, adding to the approximately R10-million that Phahlamohlaka says they spent replacing stolen cables and upgrading transformers since winter began. 

Mohamed Riaz Ebrahim, who has been working with the Lenasia community for more than 20 years and is a member of the ward committee, commends Phahlamohlaka’s efforts, saying: “These guys have been wonderful.” 

However, not everyone is so grateful to the City Power employees. 

Looking for someone to blame when the lights are still out, communities often turn against City Power employees. However, City Power technicians and electricians are not to blame for the outages — it’s the ageing and unmaintained infrastructure that can’t deal with the power surges when power is restored. 

In fact, people like Phahlamohlaka are unsung heroes, working tirelessly to get power back online after circuits trip, cables are stolen or transformers blow.  

“We are working very hard. When it’s winter, unfortunately, it’s very tough for us,” said Phahlamohlaka, explaining that the demand for electricity increases in winter, which overburdens infrastructure. 

“People don’t understand and think we aren’t doing our job,” said Phahlamohlaka. “This time of winter, no family time, that’s obvious. I’m having three phones, they are all ringing.”  

During the winter months, Phahlamohlaka often works until the early hours of the morning. He has clocked up more than 100 hours of overtime this winter, for most of which he won’t get paid as South African law only allows for 10 hours of overtime per week.  

Norman Phahlamohlaka has been an electrician for more than 20 years and during load shedding periods and winter months spends his days and most of his nights addressing outage calls across Lenasia. (Photo: Julia Evans)

City Power manager Norman Phahlamohlaka at a control room in Nirvana Substation, Lenasia, which was recently upgraded and refurbished. (Photo: Julia Evans)

Putting out fires 

“We are putting out fires all the time,” said Phahlamohlaka, referring to how he runs around all day, trying to fix outages. 

But Phahlamohlaka also faces literal fires, with community members setting tyres alight in protest at having no electricity.  

After replacing the transformer in Lenasia Extension 2, and making a quick trip to Extension 11 where another transformer needs to be replaced, Phahlamohlaka heads back to the office, where, as a manager and team leader, he is meant to always be, but rarely is in winter. 

After quickly sorting through some admin, logging new transformers installed and ordering new ones, he’s off to Lawley Extension 1, which hasn’t had power for two days. Residents have blocked the roads with rocks, set tyres alight and are demanding that their lights come back on. 

This week there were also protests in Motsoaledi, Freedom Park and Ennerdale Extension 9. 

It is Phahlamohlaka’s job to explain the situation to them. 

Lawley 1 resident protesting at having no power for two days as Joburg City Power employees drive past on 29 June 2022. (Photo: Julia Evans)

Community members in Lawley 1, Lenasia, blockade the road and set tires alight in protest after having no power for two days straight, 29 June 2022. (Photo: Julia Evans)

Escorted by the police, as soon as residents see “City of Joburg” on the side of his car, they start shouting. He gets out and calls the angry residents together. 

Some say: “Give him a chance, let’s hear him out,” while others shake their fists in the air and yell at him.  

Phahlamohlaka calmly explains to community members that the new informal settlement is built over one of the cables connecting power from the main substation in Lenasia to mini substations in Lawley Extension 1.  

There is a fault in that cable, but they can’t get access to it to fix it as there are informal houses built over it, so now all the power is running through one cable, overloading the system. 

Community member Lewis Mahumane says: “We can’t live like this”, saying that there are infants in the area and elderly people who rely on oxygen. 

When it’s explained to him that the rapid population growth in the area has put pressure on the system, Mahumane says: “Yes, but why should we have to pay for that?” 

Phahlamohlaka has a short-term solution, but the long-term solution would be to find another available cable, or lay a new cable within the next two days, which would cost about R5-million. 

Phahlamohlaka heads off to a mini-substation to turn on a circuit breaker that tripped to restore power to Lawley Extension 1 as a temporary solution, before heading to Hopefield substation to test a cable to see if it can be used as a long-term solution. 

As he drives back to the City Power depot and passes Lawley Extension 1, the tyres have burnt out and residents have gone back inside now that the power is back on. 

Phahlamohlaka doesn’t look twice — it’s just another day on the job. DM/OBP

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Johan Buys says:

    People like Norman should also explain to these communities that (1) burning tyres rarely achieve anything positive (2) illegal connections directly lead to substation faults, far more so than inrush (3) if we all pay Eskom it can do more than it can now.

  • Jennifer Hughes says:

    Thank you, Mr Phahlamohlaka, and all the others whose names I don’t know. It’s because of people like you that I love our country.

  • virginia crawford says:

    I salute Mr Phahlamohlaka and all hardworking employees. However, there are also bad people who sabotage and steal equipment and cables. The export of copper scrap should be put on hold until all scrap metal merchants are regulated and given a clean bill of health by SARS. Offer rewards for tip offs about who is doing tbe stealing and dealing. And of course, end cadre deployment. I understand the EFF has a grip on City Power maintenance: is this true?

  • Alastair Stalker says:

    Citipower obviously has a herculean task in keeping the lights on but they are their own worst enemies. I have a grid connected solar set up and particularly in winter I have to use up to 400 Kw hours of Citipower per month. I have a prepaid meter which worked well until a couple of months ago when i couldn’t load a voucher. The Citipower technician came out and told me that it was f–cked and that the Voltex meters are useless. He then bridged out the meter and said they would come and install a new meter when they had stock because they had none then due to a delay in ordering. I’m still waiting but in the mean time I’m getting my power for free despite being willing to pay. I’ve spoken to several friends and apparently this is very common. I wonder how much revenue Citipower is losing ?

  • Change is Good says:

    If the ANC government had continued with installing solar panel geysers onto RDP houses, residents could have gathered together to add extra panels and battery storage over the last 20 years to ensure a free energy source (the sun) Their only cost after purchase, would be installation, and maintenance and the daily trauma of being without power would not be the issue. This is a modest solution, not a grand gesture of infrastructure build, but it would be a better temporary solution. Instead the ANC have stolen and squandered budget on seeking out fossil fuels.
    Thank you to all those at City Power doing their jobs every day.

  • Mike Silber says:

    Thanks for giving us a view from the “ other side”. Good to know about the dedicated folks trying their best!

  • William Kelly says:

    I feel for the workres, tossed to the dogs by appalling management who are the ones who should be explaining their sorry selves to the communities that are paying for services.

  • Helen Swingler says:

    Thank you Mr Phahlamohlaka. This story has made my day. This is a wonderful initiative, DM. More stories please about the heroes in our embattled SOEs. We need to spotlight them. They are the lights in the darkness (sorry, Eskom). Public recognition is important and Julia has done a great job in describing the nuances of Mr Phahlamohlaka’s responsibilities and how he manages these and walks the tightrope every day.

  • Kenneth Jeenes Jeenes says:

    DM, we need more of these kinds of articles. About the good, hardworking people about which so little is heard. Not everyone in Eskom is corrupt and lazy, not everyone in government is corrupt and lazy – we need to celebrate the good, while continuing to expose the bad.

  • debminnaar says:

    Thank you for this article and photos. You highlight two important facts
    1- We have many Amazing Heroes in our beautiful country who are working selflessly doing the best they can to meet the needs of the communities they serve. CitiPower, PikiTup, Teachers, Health Care workers and more. THANK YOU! This is the national I love and am so proud of! (And please can I ask journalists to highlight this more)
    2- Our infrastructure requires maintenance, upgrades and strategic planning for the future. We will not get out of this mess overnight.

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