Maverick Citizen

IMMINENT THREAT

Urgent call for army to protect crucial substations in Nelson Mandela Bay as tensions grow

Urgent call for army to protect crucial substations in Nelson Mandela Bay as tensions grow
The scene where a 66-kilovolt line was cut in what Nelson Mandela Bay mayor Retief Odendaal says was sabotage. (Photos: Supplied)

As unrest flares in a community living in the vicinity of two key substations in Nelson Mandela Bay, the metro’s business chamber has implored national government and Eskom to send in the army. Security guards paid for by private businesses in the metro already protect 20 substations.

Nelson Mandela Bay MMC for Human Settlements Thembinkosi Mafana has called for an urgent public meeting on Tuesday 14 May as continued instability in the Bayland community threatens the security of Nelson Mandela Bay’s most crucial substations.

In 2017, the Bayland community was formed when backyard dwellers put up shacks on land near the two facilities, known as the Chatty Substations. There was a moratorium on evictions at the time, and Bayland rapidly grew to over 2,000 informal dwellings.

More and more residents came looking for land to erect informal housing, moving closer to the substations in recent years. 

Nelson Mandela Bay executive mayor Gary van Niekerk said the City has formalised services for a part of the Bayland community. Still, half of the community lives too close to the substations, and an eviction order had to be obtained to remove them.

“When we meet, I tell them it is impossible to provide services for you because there is a court order to move you,” he said.

They have asked the community to move to the older part of the Bayland settlement where services are provided. 

“We are meeting with people and trying to explain to them why they have to move. We can’t provide services for them where they are,” Van Niekerk added.

In a series of WhatsApp messages last week, the alarm was raised about threats to the substations. 

“I just had a worrying call from NMB metro’s acting safety and security chief, Warren Prince, regarding a threat they have qualified as credible regarding the Chatty Substation. He said SAPS has been alerted, [the public order police] patrolled the area, and metro security guards are on site. 

“The threat received is as follows: The residents of Bayland are not happy regarding their feedback, and threats were made that they will start burning again, with the power station as their main focus.”

Over the past two years, there have been reports of trucks being stopped and set alight on the R75 near Bayland.

“They must relocate, but there was no date set because residents say they are going nowhere and they would rather burn until they get what they want… the meeting was adjourned due to unruly residents,” the message continued.

nelson mandela bay substations sabotage

Work continues on a vandalised 66-kilovolt line in Nelson Mandela Bay. A specialist team was flown in from Johannesburg to repair the cable. (Photo: Supplied)

The threats have left Nelson Mandela Bay’s manufacturing industry, mostly high-energy users in the vehicle manufacturing and components sector, on edge.

In a letter written to the Presidency, several government departments and Eskom, the CEO of the Nelson Mandela Bay Business Chamber, Denise van Huyssteen requested government to declare the two substations national key points. 

She also asked that government consider sending in the army to protect the infrastructure.

Over the past 18 months, there have been several incidents of cable theft at the municipal substation and the fence and alarms were tampered with to gain access.

Van Huyssteen said they had received a report of petrol bombs being thrown at the substation.

Another facility in the metro, the Coega substation, exploded. 

“It was alleged that this was as a direct result of sabotage, which resulted in businesses in the Coega Industrial Development Zone being without power for a few days. 

“Across the city, there have been a high number of substation failures relating to cable theft/vandalism, while there have been allegations that some of these were incidents of sabotage,” Van Huyssteen added.

“We would like to lodge an urgent request for the two Chatty Substations in Nelson Mandela Bay to be declared a national key point, and as such, for tight security, including SANDF deployment, to be implemented to prevent an act of damage or sabotage from taking place. 

“It is our understanding that these critical substations are currently under serious risk as a result of threats from community groupings to burn them down. 

“These two substations (Eskom and the municipality) are the main feeder substations into Nelson Mandela Bay (excluding the IDZ) and if they were to go down through sabotage, vandalism or cable theft, the metro would be without power for a minimum of up to two weeks. 

“This in turn would affect the security of power supply to businesses and the community at large, and potentially result in major economic and social impacts,” Van Huyssteen wrote in her letter.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Nelson Mandela Bay businesses feel the pinch after substation failure knocks out electricity for hours

The chamber has been supporting an initiative at the Chatty substation where community members provide security services in exchange for a meal, but the situation has deteriorated fast.

“It is our view that both of the Chatty substations should be regarded as high-risk sites and everything possible should be done to protect them. We are concerned that should security not be tightened up at these critical substations, and a power outage of up to two weeks is experienced across most of the metro, this could result in rioting, out-of-control vandalism, communities not having access to power and/or water, communications services going down, and businesses not being able to operate,” Van Huyssteen’s letter continued.

Twenty other substations are currently protected by armed security provided by businesses in the area. 

Municipal electricity provision has become increasingly unstable in the metro, with more than 50 unscheduled power outages and emergency electricity shutdowns during April, many of which were in the industrial areas.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Heroes rally to save patients after cable thieves plunge Eastern Cape hospital into darkness for five days

During a media briefing at the end of April, the acting portfolio head for electricity and energy, Khanya Ngqisha, blamed children playing with kites for having caused two major outages in Kariega.

Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘Misty conditions’ and a ‘burning tyre’ take out power in Nelson Mandela Bay

Eskom has said in response to Daily Maverick’s questions that the request by Van Huyssteen was receiving top priority. And the mayor said they were deploying the necessary measures to protect the substations. DM

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