Illegal electricity chaos in South Africa

The surge in illegal electricity connections in South Africa over the past few years has at least one major municipality pleading for the deployment of soldiers and warning about the potential collapse of its electricity distribution infrastructure.

The country’s three biggest metropolitan municipalities — the City of Cape Town, City of Joburg, City of Tshwane — have all recently bemoaned the severity of the issue.

In October 2023, Cape Town said that illegal connections were spiralling out of control.

The metro’s costs of repairing electricity infrastructure vandalised through theft and illegal connections increased from roughly R34 million in 2019 and 2020 to R139 million in 2022 and 2023.

Cape Town MMC for electricity Beverley van Reenen believes the severe load-shedding in the past two years might be to blame for that jump. Unless a person is well trained, safely connecting electricity illegally requires that the electricity be switched off.

In May 2024, Johannesburg’s City Power called for assistance from the South African Police Service and the South African National Defence Force to help combat illegal connections.

In the last financial year, the cost of electricity infrastructure vandalism in Johannesburg has surged to R160 million.

In a letter to SAPS lieutenant-general Fannie Masemola, City Power CEO Tshifularo Mashava said failure to intervene could lead to the total destruction of the power utility’s distribution capabilities.

The problem is rife in illegal informal settlements on private land, where the metros have no ability to legally connect poor residents who would likely not be able to afford electricity anyway.

However, illegal connections and meter tampering incidents have also occurred in affluent suburbs.

In March 2024, for example, the City of Tshwane discovered that a residential home in Brooklyn with outstanding arrears of over R970,000 was using an illegal electricity connection.

A house listed for R2.3 million in Waterkloof Glen had unpaid bills exceeding R560,000 and a tampered meter.

The city told MyBroadband that it esimtated non-technical losses mainly driven by illegal connections and meter tampering were costing it over R1.3 billion per year.

Tshwane and Joburg recently also started implementing load reduction to reduce strain on their networks in areas with high rates of illegal connections.

In these locations, the high electricity demand during peak usage hours can potentially overload transformers and substations.

Wires for illegal electricity connections in an informal settlement

Electricity minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa and energy expert Chris Yelland have warned that South Africa’s next major electricity crisis will be in last-mile power distribution.

While the government has focused on improving Eskom’s generation fleet and transmission networks, distribution in municipalities has not received sufficient attention.

More regular localised power outages could encourage further adoption of private and self-generated power, eating further into Eskom’s declining revenues.

Former Eskom CEO André de Ruyter has warned that the utility could be left primarily with non-paying customers like those with illegal connections, while more affluent customers will increasingly switch to their own power.

Eskom told MyBroadband that it estimated the cost of additional maintenance on infrastructure damaged through illegal connections to be around R5.2 billion in the previous financial year. That works out to around R14.25 million per day.

Inherently dangerous

In addition to the financial impact, illegal connections are often very dangerous.

The connections are sometimes done by trained people or “technicians” who have some understanding of electricity and its danger. In certain cases, the connections is made by switching off the circuit breaker for the network they want to tap into.

However, in some cases, the connection is made on a live wire or with substandard, non-insulated wires, which poses a threat to any unsuspecting community member who makes contact with them.

“Some of these illegal connection cables are loosely laid on the ground, thus exposed and presenting a high electrocution risk,” Eskom said.

Eskom said incidents of people being electrocuted happened “quite often” but did not always get reported to the utility, so it was unable to say roughly how many people were hurt or damaged due to the practice.

The City of Tshwane also pointed out that illegal connection could damage legal users’ appliances as it creates voltages dips, undervoltage and unprotected surges.

The images below show examples of illegal electricity connections throughout South Africa’s major metros in recent years.

Illegal electricity wires in Phillipi, Cape Town
Children walking in pathway with illegal electricity connections suspended on branches
Police officer investigates illegal electricity connection
Tampered electricity meters in Cape Town

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Illegal electricity chaos in South Africa