Criminal syndicates are hijacking thousands of tonnes of Eskom coal and selling it at a hefty premium to international buyers, the Sunday Times reports.
The publication said it made contact with a former operative who worked at a “black site” around Middelburg in Mpumalanga, which stole coal on the way from mines to power stations.
Coal would be offloaded and replaced with lower-grade product or discarded coal by-products that the thieves then sent to power stations.
These are either highly inefficient at generating the heat required to produce electricity or could damage generating units, resulting in costly breakdowns that increase the likelihood of load-shedding.
The former operative explained their tasks would be to drive in a bakkie in front of a designated truck and active a signal jammer blocking the truck’s tracker while it diverted to the black site.
He would deactivate the signal jammer once the truck was back on the road with the replaced load.
The former operative told Sunday Times that the scale of the theft was massive.
“[In] one night almost 2,000 tonnes of RB1 [high-grade] coal was dropped off. To give you an idea, 2,000 tonnes fills 65 trucks,” they stated.
The coal meant for Eskom would then be transported to the harbour and exported.
Experts estimate that Eskom pays between R400 and R750 per tonne of coal, while the export price was about $344 (R5,562) per tonne.
The former operative said several people working along the coal supply chain were complicit in the criminal activity.
These included security, the weighbridge, ground force labour personnel, and sometimes even mine supervisors.
“There was usually a middleman who came with the truck. You pay him, and he pays everyone in the chain. A driver can get up to R30,000 per load. The minimum cut for a driver is R9,500. It all depends on the quality of the coal,” they stated.
Police in the area were also supposedly taking bribes to look the other way.
Minerals Council SA spokesperson Allan Seccombe told the publication people subcontracted to Eskom to take samples of coal deliveries were bribed as much as R100,000 per month to tamper with the results and make the combustible appear suitable for use.
The Sunday Times said it spoke to more than 15 other people working in the industry who corroborated the operative’s claims but were too scared to go on record.
The source now claims to operate a legitimate business but fears that speaking out could endanger his and his family’s lives.
Coal mafia clampdown
Public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan previously said law enforcement agencies had identified “mafia” groups operating in Mpumalanga that have infiltrated the structures of legitimate companies to set up parallel operations in illegal mining and coal supplies.
That has resulted in Eskom getting sub-standard coal that includes pieces of metal and rubble.
This damages its generating units, many of which are already performing well below maximum capacity after decades of operation.
Investigations are also ongoing into Eskom being billed for thousands of litres of fuel oil that never gets delivered to its power plants.
In addition, Eskom is battling rogue elements within its ranks that sabotage its power plant operations, a claim it first made in November 2021.
That came after the stays of a power pylon had been deliberately cut, collapsing onto a secondary distribution line.
That resulted in power to the coal conveyor belt at Letabo Power Station tripping and nearly dumping South Africa into Stage 6 load-shedding.
In May 2022, the power utility reported the fifth incident of suspected sabotage at just one of its power plants — Tutuka.
In that case, a saboteur with knowledge of the power station’s layout and security camera positions had severed a warming valve cable with a grinder and cut a control air pipe, resulting in the delay of the return to service of Tutuka Unit 5.
A day after that, Gordhan revealed that flexible copper bars needed to synchronise a unit at the Hendrina Power Station were stolen by people working within the power station.