Eskom sabotage disappears into thin air

The alleged wide-scale deliberate sabotage of Eskom’s power stations and other infrastructure appears to have all but disappeared in recent months.

The power utility frequently bemoaned the impact of alleged acts of deliberate damage to its equipment on its ability to keep the lights on in 2021 and 2022.

It became a major roleplayer in the causes of unplanned breakdowns at Eskom during the tenures of former CEO André de Ruyter and COO Jan Oberholzer.

Both De Ruyter and Oberholzer left the utility in early 2023, but not before bringing enough attention to the issue that President Cyril Ramaphosa deemed it necessary to deploy the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) to help protect Eskom’s power stations and key infrastructure.

While this intervention was initially supposed to last a few months, Ramaphosa has repeatedly extended the deployment.

Most recently, he approved SANDF’s participation to continue from April 2024 until March 2025, albeit for a much smaller cohort of 746 soldiers.

Altogether, the deployments will have cost taxpayers around R461 million since 16 December 2022.

While the cost is substantial, Eskom has rarely mentioned the issue of sabotage in recent fleet performance updates in 2023 and early 2024.

In recent feedback to MyBroadband, it attributed this decrease directly to SANDF’s participation in anti-sabotage efforts.

Slight increase in reported cases and arrests

The decline in sabotage follows a slight increase in the number of cases of vandalism, theft, and other crimes Eskom reported to the police in the 2023 financial year compared with 2022.

In less than the first three months of the past financial year, Eskom reported 497 cases to the police, an average of 165 per month, compared to 160 per month in the previous years.

The action also resulted in the arrest of 44 people, working out to about 15 per month, compared with the 126 total arrests for the previous year, about 11 per month.

The table below shows how Eskom sabotage declined between its 2022 and 2023 financial years.

Eskom crime cases reported to police
1 April 2022—31 May 2023 1 April 2023—28  June 2023
Cases reported to SAPS 1,920 497
Cases under investigation 1,120 466
Average cases reported per month 160 165
Arrests 126 44
Average arrests per month 11 15

Despite the higher number of cases and arrests related to crimes against Eskom, only one arrest has been made for deliberate infrastructure sabotage.

A maintenance contract worker at the Camden Power Station was arrested in November 2022 after he was found to have intentionally removed a bearing oil drain plug, which caused one of the plant’s generating units to trip repeatedly.

Each Camden unit can only produce up to 200MW of power, which makes this action unlikely to have caused load-shedding unless it coincides with multiple other breakdowns.

Before this incident, Eskom reported at least five suspected cases of insider sabotage going back as far as March 2021. However, although all of these cases had been reported to the police, they  had not resulted in arrests.

Electricity minister and head of generation hit back at sabotage allegations

Eskom says it continuously investigates potential sabotage as standard practice.

However, the utility has been able to avoid load-shedding for more than two months due to a reduction in demand and fewer breakdowns.

The fact that it has not suffered a sudden and unexpected loss in capacity leading to load-shedding also suggests that sabotage has become less of a concern.

The most recent allegations of sabotage at Eskom came in early February 2024, when ANC Secretary General Fikile Mbalula called the implementation of stage 5 and stage 6 load-shedding “clear” sabotage.

Both electricity minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa, a fellow ANC member, and Eskom’s head of generation Bheki Nxumalo rubbished these claims.

Ramokgopa said that although there were the odd employees who could damage Eskom’s equipment for personal gain, the majority were “honest, professional, competent and patriotic”.

While the pair could easily have used sabotage as a scapegoat for the generating fleet’s poor performance, they said there was no evidence to support the allegations.

Instead, Nxumalo emphasised that the higher levels of load-shedding were due to boiler tube leaks at nine units.

These leaks are difficult to fix due to the intricate layout of the tubes, which maximises heat transfer to produce steam and turn the turbines that generate electricity in coal power plants.

The most common cause of boiler tube failures is scale buildup inside the tube, inadequate water or steam flow, or operational errors like over-firing, where excessive fuel raises the boiler’s temperature beyond safe limits.

However, there have also been instances of criminal activity that increased the likelihood of tube leaks.

Low-quality coal and debris being fed into Eskom’s power stations due to coal cartels stealing and swapping out high-quality stock have damaged generating units in the past.

MyBroadband asked Eskom for an update on how sabotage is influencing its business in recent times but it did not provide feedback by the time of publication.

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Eskom sabotage disappears into thin air