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Gauteng battles alarming infrastructure theft, vandalism scourge

It will cost R23-million to repair the M1 bridge that was damaged by a devastating fire in the Johannesburg CBD about a fortnight ago. The fire was attributed to cable theft.

City Power said it would take about two weeks to repair the damage, which has left many residents without power. It has to replace power and telecommunications cables and 88 oil-filled cables.

Gauteng is spending millions of rands to combat theft and vandalism of infrastructure. Many state-owned enterprises in the province are bedevilled by cable theft and infrastructure vandalism, including Eskom, City Power, Rand Water and Prasa. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Stripped bare: Looting till there is nothing left of Gauteng’s rail network

“Eskom has an average of 40 theft and vandalism incidents in Gauteng per month,” the power utility told Daily Maverick. 

Wits School of Governance Associate Professor William Gumede said: “We have a breakdown in the rule of law because of police incompetence.” This, he said, was one of the reasons for the scourge of infrastructure theft and vandalism.

Another reason was corruption.

Gauteng

Vandalised traffic lights in Riverlea, Johannesburg, on 31 January 2024. In 2023 alone criminals caused more than R30-million in damage. (Photo: Gallo Images / Papi Morake)

“Then you have employees of state-owned companies who don’t do their work, but they cannot be fired because they are affiliated with unions which are affiliated with the government and cannot make appointments based on competence. 

“People have a chance to fix this (when they vote in the general election on 29 May), but they must vote for competence and not vote based on the past,” he said. 

“It’s not a conspiracy, it’s a lack of maintenance. It can only be neglected to a certain point before the whole infrastructure system crashes,” he said. 

Part of the vandalized Walter Sisulu Memorial Square in Kliptown with the lights and roofing stolen by criminals.
(Photo: Bheki Simelane)

Arrests and prosecutions

Last month, City Power arrested 17 people in Johannesburg on charges including theft, tampering with infrastructure and possession of stolen electricity property. 

Also last month, two women were arrested in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, for tampering with essential infrastructure and for bribery. City Power said the two were involved in an illegal reconnection syndicate.

The arrests came after a customer in the area, who owes close to  R17-million in unpaid electricity bills, was disconnected. 

walter sisulu square vandalism

The Walter Sisulu Memorial Square in Kliptown has been trashed and vandalised. (Photo: Bheki Simelane)

Two convicted criminals were each sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment last month for tampering with essential infrastructure and possession of stolen goods.  

Six people were convicted for the theft of Eskom infrastructure between August and December 2022. “We had two successful convictions in the past seven months in Gauteng,” Eskom said.  

“There is a combination of heavily armed syndicates and drug addicts that are responsible for the theft and vandalism of infrastructure. The syndicates execute armed robberies at the guarded substations and the CNCs (customer network centres), stealing anything valuable that could be sold at scrap dealers or used for illegal connections, while the drug addicts do petty crimes, operating as individuals or in pairs,” Eskom said.

Gauteng vandalism theft

Vandalised traffic lights in Riverlea, Johannesburg, on 31 January 2024. (Photo: Gallo Images / Papi Morake)

“We have identified the hotspots and implemented technology to provide back-up to physical guards deployed across Gauteng. Eskom is further driving public education across the province to raise awareness of this problem to stimulate awareness among communities so that they too can assist in reporting such criminal acts.”  

In its 2023 annual report, Ekom noted: “The impact of theft and vandalism on both our transmission and distribution networks is also becoming more apparent.”  

The power utility said that responding to those incidents diverted resources from attending to normal faults, which adversely affected service levels for customers.

“Additionally, energy losses due to a culture of non-payment, illegal connections, theft and vending fraud remain unacceptably high.”

Public deaths

Eskom said: “We had five incidents of public fatalities which resulted mainly from illegal connections in 2023.” 

In an attempt to curb cable theft, the utility said it had “joined forces with SAPS to conduct continuous unannounced scrapyard raids across the province. Cable theft has cost Eskom in Gauteng approximately R8.3-million since the beginning of 2023.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Eskom news

Read more in Daily Maverick: Eskom Intelligence Files

“We are happy since… a task team consisting of Eskom and SAPS… has been established. The joint expertise of both entities appears to assist with critical infrastructure crimes… on a daily basis. We, however, hope to see improved delivery in this regard on a continual basis until we… eradicate this criminality.” 

Eskom said that apart from stealing copper cable, criminals were targeting other valuable assets. “Transformers and transformer oil are also in demand by criminals.  

“Eskom had to hire additional security to tackle the scourge and also makes use of escort services for our technicians when they go work in certain areas that are classified as high-risk zones across the province.” 

The utility’s security services in Gauteng cost about R100-million a year. DM

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