Why South Africa’s plugs are changing

South Africa’s slow migration from its old triangular plug and socket system to the newer, slimmer, six-sided ZA Plug will help cut down on the number of adapters people need to have in their homes.

This is just one of the many benefits of switching to the new standard, the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) has stated.

Despite the advantages of the new standard, uptake has been slow.

The National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications has also not made it mandatory for all households to replace their old plugs and sockets with the new standard. This is because the old standard is still widely used and forcing South Africans to switch would be incredibly costly.

While the compact three-pin ZA Plug has been declared South Africa’s preferred electrical plug and socket standard, there is no regulation forcing South Africans to replace all their existing plugs and wall sockets.

It is only mandatory for new electrical wall outlet installations to have at least one socket for the compact three-pin ZA Plug. The same outlet can still include a socket for our old plugs.

A major reason that South Africans have no incentive to incur the cost to switch to the new standard is lack of adoption by major appliance manufacturers. The lack of adoption may be attributed to the fact that South Africa remains the only country in the world to have adopted this standard.

The only other country using a similar standard is Brazil, but its system is not completely compatible with ours.

Photo of unopened ZA Plug top

Why ZA Plug?

This raises the question: Why has South Africa adopted a system no-one else in the world is using?

Gianfranco Campetti, the chair of the technical committee responsible for South Africa’s plug and socket standards, explained that the answer to the question dates back to at least 1986.

The compact three-pin ZA Plug complies with a standard laid down by the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) called IEC 60906-1, which began its life as IEC–906–1 in 1986. The aim was to standardise plugs and sockets for 250 Volt systems around the world.

“The standard was called ‘the international plugs and socket system’. I think we were seduced into believing that South Africa could take another step out of the morass of history,” Campetti said.

“Parliamentarians surrounding these decisions saw this as an opportunity of getting into Africa with an international standard that everyone would have to comply with.”

By the time it became clear that Europe was not going to adopt the IEC standard, South Africa was already too invested in it. We also held out hope that we would be able to promote the adoption of the standard throughout Africa through SADC.

This raises another question: Why did Europe drop the IEC standard?

“Delegates said that they are not going to change their plug and socket system. No way. They’ve had it for a hundred years, or whatever, and they are not going to change it,” Campetti explained.

“They might be very proactive on some things, but this thing is really quite a political issue.”

As for South Africa, Campetti said that we should not rue the opportunity that we inadvertently had all those years ago.

“I think when people see this [compact three-pin plug] it makes sense because we can have up to five of these on one plate.”

Now read: South Africa’s new plugs and adapters – Here is what they look like

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Why South Africa’s plugs are changing