DM168

POWER CRISIS

Eskom technicians live in daily fear as security threats and violent attacks on staff escalate

Eskom technicians live in daily fear as security threats and violent attacks on staff escalate
City Power technicians cut off illegal connections on 23 November 2020 in Roodepoort. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sharon Seretlo)

Eskom has been temporarily suspending services in some parts of the country as attacks on staff escalate. It says there have been 14 attacks on its staff in Gauteng up to 31 July. No arrests have been made.

“You have no idea something like that could happen when it does. You do not expect the community to attack you because you think all they want is for the fault to be fixed, but you get stabbed … You just never imagine that a reported electricity fault could lead to such rage.”

This is the harrowing account of an Eskom worker, who asked not to be named, describing how he and his colleagues battle robbers and thugs daily.

Eskom has been temporarily suspending services in some parts of the country as attacks on staff escalate. It says there have been 14 attacks on its staff in Gauteng up to 31 July. No arrests have been made.

According to Eskom, possible motives for the attacks are to steal cable and other material to use for illegal connections or to sell to scrap dealers, and to rob security personnel of their guns.

The power utility said many of the incidents were taking place in Soweto.

Eskom has at times suspended services in several parts of Gauteng because of security threats to workers. Services resumed after discussions with councillors and community leaders in areas including Zonkizizwe, Winterveld, Sebokeng, Vosloo­rus, Mabopane and Moletsane.

Eskom said services were also suspended during protests “to protect our employees”.

Employees in Soweto described the trauma of being robbed while doing their jobs.

One said: “It’s the last thing you expect, really. Most of the time, when I see there is hostility, I simply drive away and return when it’s safe to do so.

“I have been attacked twice. The first time it was pure criminality because they de­manded my phone and wallet but, in the other incident in Orlando, I had to speed away after irate community members pounced as soon as they spotted the Eskom car.

“We would later understand that they were frustrated by rolling blackouts.”

Another worker said: “How many people do you know who get attacked for doing their work? This is why I say there is something wrong with some of our communities.

“Communities need to understand that we are only there to help. They need to understand that we are as human as they are.

“Nowadays, you set out to work in the morning and there are no guarantees you will return.”

In Chiawelo, Soweto, residents have been guarding Eskom technicians since 2020.

In July 2021, during the spasm of looting and destruction, Eldorado Park residents united to protect infrastructure.

“We knew recovery would take years,” said community leader Keith Duarte.

Johannesburg’s City Power has also endured attacks on its staff, with little support from communities.

According to City Power, there have been 10 attacks on staff and security personnel since January. Cases were opened with the police, but nobody has been arrested.

Spokesperson Isaac Mangena said: “We are only aware of cases of copper cable theft and vandalism being brought to court.”

In July alone, 35 arrests related to theft of infrastructure had been made.

Mangena went on to say: “Our technicians have been robbed of their phones, ladders, toolboxes and laptops as they responded to ­outages.”

He said the attacks were harming service delivery. “This, without a doubt, delays our work – an undesirable situation, but that is where we find ourselves, unfortunately.”

City Power has roped in armed guards and has also sought protection from the Johannesburg Metro Police Department (JMPD).

“We are also starting to work closely with communities, their policing forums and the neighbourhood watch,” Mangena said.

Both Eskom and City Power say they suspend services in areas where there is a threat to workers.

“We engage the community leadership, or call for backup from the JMPD or the SAPS. In some communities, we don’t re­­spond at night, especially in informal settlements or town­ships,” Mangena said.

In Sibangweni village near Port St Johns in the Eastern Cape, households were left without electricity for days earlier this month after Eskom withdrew services after one of its technicians was threatened at gunpoint.

The Eastern Cape spokesperson for the utility, Zama Mpondwana, said: “The decision was taken to protect the safety of Eskom employees.

“We recently had a situation where an Eskom employee was threatened at gunpoint by community members who demanded that the employee reconnect the supply that he disconnected due to tampering with a meter.”

But community leaders, including councillors and the chief, said Eskom should have consulted them before withdrawing from the area.

Ward 10 councillor Thobile Mkhosana warning Eskom of its ‘harsh baseless decision’ to switch off electricity in Sibangweni village in Libode near Mthatha. (Photo: Hoseya Jubase)

On 9 August, angry residents of Sibangweni met at Lutholi Junior Secondary School and described Eskom’s decision to suspend services as “reckless”. Councillor Thobile Mkhosana and Si­ba­ngwe­ni chief Jongisizwe Nombengula both said the gun threat had not happened in Sibangweni.

A local resident, Mthuthuzeli Ntshiba, said: “They did not think about this. They made a decision without consulting first.”

The owner of Try Again Shop, Steve Mbiko, in Sibangweni village, shows Daily Maverick the damage caused by the Eskom decision to withdraw electricity supply in Sibangweni village on 9 August 2022. (Photo: Hoseya Jubase)

The owner of a shop in the village, Steve Mbiko, said small businesses had lost thousands of rands. Six days without electricity had dealt him a heavy blow as he had to throw food away. “My fridge is empty now.”

The owner of another shop, Lungile Nteleza, said Eskom had given no warning. He estimated his losses at R13,000.

The local branch of the South African National Civic Organisation (Sanco) condemned criminal acts directed at Eskom employees, but said the utility had been too harsh in its decision to withdraw services from Sibangweni.

The Sanco convenor for the area, Vuyolwethu Notununu, said: “These attacks on Eskom employees are mushrooming all over and are not a product of Sibangweni. Sibangweni is home to nearly 15,000 residents whose sole source of power is Eskom electricity and who played no part in the criminal attacks. Eskom should have consulted relevant stakeholders.”

Councillor Zola Mevana from the Nya­ndeni Local Municipality said community members had committed themselves to safeguarding Eskom employees.

In Harare, Khayelitsha, in Cape Town, the community has also begun guarding Eskom workers.

On 3 August, Eskom withdrew services from Harare after gangsters demanded R20,000 in protection money from workers.

Cable theft, vandalism and illegal connections are other serious problems for Eskom in the greater Cape Town area.

Eskom’s Cape coastal acting general manager, Mbulelo Yedwa, said: “We have criminals that are tripping Eskom infrastructure and asking the community to pay to reconnect them. Furthermore, there’s a syndicate illegally connecting people at R1,500 per household.”

Councillor Lukhanyo Simangweni said this week: “Each and every day, we are facing problems with electricity.” He told DM168 that, before Eskom could enter the area to do work, he or his office needed to be called to find out if the area was safe or if escorts could be provided.

Simangweni said the underlying reason for extortion threats was unemployment among young people.

Angry Eskom customers after the meeting held at Lutholi Junior Secondary School in Sibangweni village near Mthatha on 9 August 2022. (Photo: Hoseya Jubase)

The attacks in Gauteng so far this year

City Power technicians

  • Security officers guarding underground cables in the Naturena and Goudkoppies areas were attacked and beaten.
  • In the Goudkoppies area, security officers were shot at and forced to abandon their vehicle. When they returned, they found that the criminals had torched it.
  • On 31 March, two security officers were shot and killed in the Johannesburg inner city.
  • On 1 April, a security officer was shot in the Kya Sands area. He later died of his injuries.
  • On 14 April, a contract worker was held hostage in Eldorado Park.
  • On 16 April, a City Power electrician was held hostage at Kya Sands.
  • On 20 June, two security officers were shot and injured at Eikenhof.
  • On 22 June, a City Power electrician was held hostage in Mayibuye.
  • On 30 June, City Power contractors were held hostage at Fleurhof.
  • On 25 July, security officers contracted to City Power were tied up and robbed of personal belongings at Allandale substation, Mayibuye.

Eskom technicians

  • An armed robbery at KwaMasiza substation in the Vaal in which a security officer was shot and injured.
  • An armed robbery at Pulsar Vaal with no injuries.
  • Two armed robberies at the Vosloorus Customer Network Centre in which two security officers were shot and injured.
  • An armed robbery at Boikhutsong in which one security officer was fatally wounded.
  • An armed robbery at Mabopane township in which a security officer was shot at, disarmed and wounded.
  • An armed robbery at Northrand substation in Tembisa in which a security officer was shot and seriously wounded.
  • An armed robbery at Ga-Rankuwa in which two security officers were robbed of their pistols.
  • An armed robbery at Vuka substation in Mabopane, in which one security officer was injured while escaping the attackers through a perimeter fence.
  • A technician was shot at in Soweto, but not injured, when attending to a call after hours.
  • Two armed robberies at Buccleuch substation in Sandton in which no one was injured.
  • Two technicians were robbed of their cellphones and wallets while working in Mabopane.
  • A technician was hijacked and robbed of her cellphones and money while working in Mabopane. The hijackers made her transfer money from her banking app to her bank card and also forced her to send money via e-wallet.
  • A technician was stabbed at Nomzamo while installing meters.
  • A security officer was shot dead during an attempt to steal copper cable outside the Eskom Klipspruit Customer Network Centre in Soweto. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25. 

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