Our Burning Planet


City Power Joburg has already spent 80% of its budget thanks to blackouts, thieves and vandals

City Power Joburg has already spent 80% of its budget thanks to blackouts, thieves and vandals
A single electrical light bulb illuminates the exterior of an informal convenience store, also known as a spaza store, in a township in Soweto, South Africa, on Monday, May 25, 2015. Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd. is struggling to supply the country with enough electricity after 20 years of underinvestment in power plants and this year it has implemented the most rolling blackouts on record as it grapples to meet demand. Photographer: Dean Hutton/Bloomberg via Getty Images

As rolling blackouts put immense pressure on ageing and poorly maintained infrastructure, vandals and thieves are cashing in, it says.

City Power has already spent 80% of its budget for the entire financial year to replace mini-substations damaged through the perpetual problems of vandalism, theft and rolling blackouts.

The City of Joburg entity said that in the past year (during which there were 205 days of rolling blackouts) it has replaced more than 290 mini-substations, totalling R200-million.

Vandalism and theft

City Power reported on Thursday that it loses on average two mini-substations a day due to continued theft and vandalism across its service delivery centres, with Roodepoort the hardest hit.

On average, one mini-substation supplies 100 households, depending on the size, which the entity says explains the number of calls it gets every time a single mini-substation is vandalised or blows up. 

City Power said load shedding has a high impact on its infrastructure, with mini-substations and transformers blowing up, or being stolen.

Vally Padayachee, former Eskom executive manager and former City Power Joburg executive, told Our Burning Planet rolling blackouts (the high levels and even Stage 3) has a significant impact on theft and vandalism, since long periods without power gives people time in the day to vandalise or steal. 

“If you’ve got four hours of load shedding in Stage 6, you’re got four hours to vandalise, because the power is off,” said Padayachee.

“With four hours you can knock into big substations and switchgear and transformers and vandalise, you can even pull cables out the ground if you know where new cables are.”

By Wednesday this week, City Power had to replace 14 mini-substations that had all been vandalised, to address outages – eight in Roodepoort, four at the Reuven Service Delivery Centre, one in Randburg and one in Midrand. 

Blackouts put pressure on an ageing, unmaintained system

Rolling blackouts also have an impact on the longevity of infrastructure.

Our Burning Planet previously reported that ageing and unmaintained infrastructure can’t deal with the power surges when power is restored after a blackout.

City Power Joburg spokesperson Isaac Mangena told OBP in 2022 (when the entity was dealing with the same issues) that “load shedding has undesirable effects on the infrastructure which, by its nature, was never meant to be switched on and off at short intervals, and comes with it added financial pressures that we did not budget for”.

Padayachee agrees that distribution equipment was not designed for rolling blackouts, and frequently turning on and off causes equipment to fail quicker.

Energy analyst and electrical engineer Chris Yelland told Our Burning Planet that frequent switching causes critical damage to the equipment, which can result in system failures. 

“That’s just a sign of an ageing, poorly maintained network,” said Yelland. “Which is exactly what we have in South Africa in many, many municipalities.”

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

Padayachee agreed, saying that, “whether it’s generation, transmission and distribution equipment – including mini-substations – if they are not well maintained, then they will fail earlier or quicker. It’s a comment that we as engineers know, which part of our training.”

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This is where Padayachee’s criticism of Eskom comes in. The utility says that because its power stations are old, no amount of good maintenance will make them perform better.

“That’s unacceptable,” said Padayachee. “Globally there are power stations that are 70 or 80 years old that perform reasonably well because they are well maintained.”

City Power said that the recent high stages of rolling blackouts have caused the entity to lose mini-substations faster than it can replace them. Areas affected by vandalised mini-substations in Roodepoort including Lufhereng, the Roodepoort CBD, JG Strydom, Witpoortjie, Wilgeheuwel and Weltevreden, as well as those in other SDCs, could be restored until they had received stock of mini-substations.

City Power has run out of stock of mini-substations and has ordered more, but they are only expected to be delivered from next week owing to a long lead time and the festive-season closure of most factories. 

Security in remote areas

Padayachee said the nature of the distribution and transmission business is geographical, which makes it difficult to secure – unlike generation, where you enter the gate of a power station which is secured.

“So, being geographical, you’re constrained by the reasonable level of security measures you take,” he said. “I say reasonable because if you throw money and effort and resources, you can beef up any security.

“But because it’s a geographical business, it’s out there in the field, it’s out there in the township… then you are at the mercy of thieves and people who want to vandalise,” said Padayachee, adding that vandals comprise regular people on the street and very sophisticated people for whom it is their business. 

“From a theft and vandalism perspective, I’m comfortable that distributors would have taken reasonable measures.” 

Padayachee added that theft and vandalism is “the cancer of the industry”, perpetuated by the geographical challenges he mentioned and because it’s been around for decades. 

“If anyone comes up with a solution they could become millionaires.” DM/OBP

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Jane Morison says:

    The Johannesburg municipality could deploy metro police to protect the substations. Together with metro, call for substation watch similar to neighbourhood watch. The combination of the two should keep both honest.

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