ALL IN A DAY’S WORK
On the job with one of the unsung heroes trying to alleviate SA’s power crisis
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.”
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.
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.
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
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