Eskom’s massive illegal electricity problems

Eskom has major illegal electricity problems in South Africa, with the already-embattled power utility forced to fork out billions to address issues resulting from illicit connections, sales, and cable theft.

Moreover, these activities can contribute to higher stages of load-shedding, meaning Eskom’s paying customers also suffer as a result of these illegal acts.

Eskom recently told MyBroadband that non-technical losses, including illegal connections, electricity sales, meter tampering, and cable theft, amounted to 13,396GWh during the 2022/23 financial year — equivalent to more than R5.5 billion.

This works out to roughly R15 million per day.

The power utility regularly conducts audits to find and remove illegal connections, but it says the situation is only worsening.

“The illegal electricity connections are worsening due to the informal settlements mushrooming, and in most cases, these end up connecting themselves illegally,” said Eskom.

The power utility said 28% of non-load-shedding-related power outages it responded to between 1 April 2022 and 31 March 2023 resulted from theft, vandalism, and illegal connections.

It added that it must spend millions normalising areas with illegal connections. Eskom said it spent at least R65.9 million doing so in the 2023/24 financial year.

Eskom senior manager for maintenance and operations Mashangu Xivambu said illegal connections, electricity sales, and cable theft also significantly impact the load-shedding that South African residents experience.

Xivambu said illegal connections add unforeseen electricity demand, making it more complex to manage grid supply.

These activities can also overload the country’s electricity infrastructure, resulting in outages outside of load-shedding.

In June 2023, Xivambu revealed that illegal connections cause higher load-shedding as a result of these effects.

“Customers will be off because we have network faults generated by these illegal connections. The connections are not properly done, not protected, and as a result, the network trips,” he said.

Xivambu said South Africa could avoid two stages of load-shedding by eradicating the illegal connections in Gauteng alone.

However, this is easier said than done. He added that residents often threaten the safety of Eskom workers tasked with removing illegal connections.

Even when Eskom technicians can remove illegal connections, they are often just reconnected.

Cable theft is another substantial contributor to load-shedding and Eskom’s financial woes.

According to the power utility, the theft of cables, transformers, overhead lines, and conductors costs it around R2 billion each year.

Copper cabling is highly targeted by criminal syndicates and opportunists as it carries a high price.

“Illegal electricity connections and cable theft often lead to prolonged power outages and compromises the quality of supply, which affects businesses, essential services, as well as the day-to-day lives of society, and this has a negative impact on the economy,” Eskom added.

In May 2022, City Power — the City of Johannesburg’s municipal power utility — revealed that it spent R100 million in one year fighting cable theft.

Like with illegal connections, Gauteng appears to be the epicentre of copper cable theft in South Africa.

Several law enforcement agencies, including the South African Police Service (SAPS), have joined forces to tackle crimes against Eskom, including the plague of illegal connections and cable theft.

Commenting on a South African Revenue Service-led raid of a coal smuggling syndicate, SAPS spokesperson Brigadier Ahtlenda Mathe revealed that the law enforcement agencies were launching a “broad attack” on illegal connections in South Africa.

Their goal isn’t to disconnect illegal connections but to bring to task those responsible for installing illicit connections and the theft of copper cabling.

“It is a wide spectrum with anybody from informal settlements, businesses and housing estates being involved. This week’s raids were a message to these people,” said Mathe.

She added that if successful, the project will help cut two stages of load-shedding and that she expects to see related “soon”.

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Eskom’s massive illegal electricity problems