Is this the suburb with the worst electricity outages in South Africa?

Residents in Pimville, Soweto, say that they have been hit with over 160 power cuts in 60 days over June and July, with these outages occurring over and above the planned Eskom load shedding schedules.

This has resulted in disruptive and, at times, violent protests, which negatively impact many small businesses in the area. It has also led to claims that power utility Eskom has all but abandoned the area.

However, Public Enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan said that this was not the case and that Eskom has responded to all 32 faults logged by the Pimville customers since June 2021.

Responding in a written parliamentary Q&A this week, Gordhan said that 24 of the 32 faults relate to cable theft, five to network overload, and three were due to planned maintenance.

“In the Pimville area, Eskom has around 24,700 registered customers; however, 70% (about 17,300) of these customers do not buy electricity. The causes of power interruptions in Pimville are vandalism, cable theft and illegal connections, which result in an overloaded network,” he said.

Gordhan said that queries and faults from customers that do not buy electricity are scheduled for meter audits. Upon auditing, customers that are found to be buying electricity legally are restored.

However, customers who buy illegal electricity tokens, are not buying electricity, or have tampered meters are issued fines. Their supply is only restored once payment of the tampering fine is received, he said.

“Recently, the longest outage experienced was due to infrastructure vandalism at Moroka substation, which affected supply in multiple areas in Soweto, including Pimville. The vandalism resulted in an explosion at the substation, which took almost a week to repair due to the extent of the damages.

“Even though Eskom secures the substation, thieves still find a way to break in, steal cables and other equipment, leading to massive destruction and extended unavailability of electricity to customers,” he said.

New meters

To alleviate some of the issues in the area, Gordhan said that Eskom replaced the credit meters with prepaid split electricity meters, allowing customers to manage their consumption and limit it to their affordability.

However, he said that most communities continue to bypass these meters, resulting in vandalised equipment, indiscriminate use of energy, and overloaded networks.

“Eskom has tried to remove these meter bypasses but experiences retaliation from the community, which in some cases, makes it unsafe for technicians to work in those areas.

“In cases where major networks are affected resulting in extended outages, Eskom dispatches technicians to the fault areas and customers are updated through contact details of the registered account-holders. Customers are also updated through media statements, radio, and via social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.”

Gordhan said that Eskom implements load reduction in all areas where the networks are at risk of being damaged by overloading, and Pimville is one of these areas.

“Load reduction is carried out to prevent loss or damage of equipment and extended outages. Customers are notified of pending load reduction, which normally lasts for a maximum of five (5) hours and is implemented up to twice a day per customer.”

“The tampering and the bypassing of meters, illegal connections and unauthorised operations result in electricity demand exceeding the design capacity of the network and overloads and damages electricity infrastructure, i.e., transformers.”

Of the close to 132 transformers in the area, six failed recently due to overloading; however, Gordhan said three have since been restored.

He added that the cost of replacing a transformer is around R400,000, and that the Pimville area alone has cost Eskom lost revenue of R36 million in the last four months.

New deal 

Soweto has proven to be a thorn in Eskom’s side for more than a decade, with the power utility struggling to collect revenue from the area despite various initiatives.

The City of Johannesburg is now in discussions to take over electricity supply in parts of the city from Eskom, says newly-elected mayor Mpho Moerane.

Moerane told eNCA that the agreement would see the city take ownership of several key areas, including:

  • Soweto;
  • Orange Farm;
  • Diesploot;
  • Ivory Park;
  • Finetown;
  • Sandton.

Moerane said that the initial discussions between the city and Eskom had focused on Soweto, with residents complaining about a lack of service delivery and power outages. Despite several write-offs and years of collection battles, the township’s residents currently owe Eskom around R7.5 billion in unpaid electricity debt.

Rather than continuing to serve the area, Eskom has instead approved the transfer of Soweto and other suburbs directly to the City of Johannesburg through its own power subsidiary, City Power, Moerane said.

While a formal memorandum of understanding is still being formulated between the city and Eskom, the mayor said that the city already plans to introduce its own power scheme to improve collections.

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Is this the suburb with the worst electricity outages in South Africa?