A ‘can-do’ blackout

2013-08-22 00:00

MUNICIPAL staff worked round the clock to repair a major sub-station after a fire knocked out power to a third of the city’s residents on Tuesday night.

The northern suburbs, Pietermaritzburg’s most populous area with over 100 000 residents who provide 70% of the city’s income in rates, electricity and water charges, were plunged into darkness that endured until late yesterday afternoon.

According to the municipality, the outage was caused by a fire in the main electricity sub-station in Newholmes Way.

Msunduzi’s head of electricity Sabatha Nom­nganga said the team worked round the clock to fix the problem. He said the fire caused damage to a major transformer and circuit breaker. Damage to the sub-station was estimated at over R50 000.

Nomnganga confirmed that there would be an investigation into how the fire had started. He admitted that at the heart of the problem was the city’s ageing infrastructure.

“This was unfortunate because on Monday we handed over the site to our contract workers who were going to start with upgrading work on the sub-station. They will be installing a 132 kv line that will be able to carry a greater load to meet the growing demand for electricity in the northern suburbs,” he said.

The areas blacked out included Woodlands, Northdale, Raisethorpe, Allandale, Orient Heights, a vast part of Copesville, Belfort and Bombay Heights. By 8 pm on Tuesday night, the usually noisy central Raisethorpe had settled into a subdued quietness. Even motorists with revved up engines drove more cautiously.

By 10 pm there was an eerie silence as the northern areas settled down to an early night. The dogs, like their masters, cowed by the darkness, hardly barked. The only hive of activity was in Newholmes Way. Mayor Chris Ndlela arrived and spent half the night with the workers. So too did Deputy Mayor Thobani Zuma, councillor Manilal Inderjit and municipal manager Mxolisi Nkosi.

By early yesterday morning there was a pall of smoke hanging over the area as people went back to basics and lit fires in their backyards to heat water for baths and early morning cups of tea and coffee. For many, the blackout brought out some of the best in their neighbours.

A resident in Naidoo Road, who did not want to be named, lit a big fire in his backyard and boiled a 200-litre drum of water so that he and his neighbours could have hot baths.

Others shared hot water for tea and coffee, and families with gas cookers invited their neighbours to a hot lunch.

These were some of the stories of good neighbourliness that poured into The Witness.

There were, however, a few unscrupulous people who chose to exploit the situation, sending out group SMSes to induce fear that the blackout would last for three days and more.

Last night, even after the power was restored, an SMS was doing the rounds, purporting to come from the municipality and warning residents that the power was about to go off again.

Councillor Manilal Inderjit said this message certainly did not emanate from the municipality.

He confirmed that power had been restored to most areas, but certain streets were still out. These included Barbet Place and Erna, Kadrivel and Jewarlall roads. He said this could be a problem on that particular circuit and that a team from the electricity department were working on the problem.

While residents did try to contain their anger at the blackout, many voiced their frustration. KZN Deaf and Blind Society computer lecturer Tahitha Pillay said it was a wasted day for her students. Schools in the area reported a higher than unsual incidence of absenteeism.

Stop and Shop General Dealer owner Kiran Padel said his business was directly affected. “My ice cream stock had defrosted and I lost a lot of profit because of the outages,” he said.

AM Gas and General manager Graham Phillip said while he had customers flocking in to buy gas cylinders, he lost out because he could not supply gas from his electric pumps.

• thobani.ngqulunga@witness.co.za

MUNICIPAL insiders said the municipality should ring-fence revenue collected from electricity to ensure that funds were available to maintain the infrastructure or replace it if necessary.

Some of the transformers were installed over 25 years ago. An insider told The Witness that one of three transformers at the sub-station had previously burnt out and had not been replaced because there were still two functioning. However, on Tuesday a second one burnt out and this caused the problem because the system could not function with one transformer.

Last year the municipality initiated a R800 million project to upgrade the city’s entire electricity infrastructure within five years.

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