Double standards

2008-11-24 00:00

I suppose all of us, at one time or another, have been a victim of ineffective policing. Things go missing from our homes be-cause a prowler climbed over the wall and stole a handbag, a computer, a cellphone, some jewellery or whatever.

When this happens, we are outraged and feel violated. Some of us might even be so cross as to call the police and report the robbery.

It seems that anyone you talk to has, at one time or another, experienced this kind of petty theft. In many cases, the theft is not reported to the insurers because victims say that the loss is so small that it’s not worth reporting because the excess is higher than the value of the stolen goods.

Can you imagine my surprise, last week, when the South African Institute of Electrical Engineering (SAIEE) told me about a phone call it received from a journalist in Cape Town who wanted to know if SAIEE could provide him with information on why mains electrical wires should be insulated.

Puzzled, the institute asked why he wanted this information and it was told that there are thousands of shack dwellers who have been stealing fencing wire — a petty theft in itself — illegally connecting the fencing wire to an electrical distribution box and then running this wire to their shacks so that they can have electricity.

Apparently the bare fencing wire is stapled on to the roof of each shack it goes past, so that each occupant can connect to the line.

The way it works is:

• Naked, uninsulated wires run across the rooftops of a row of shacks so that everyone along the route can join in.

• Stolen fencing wire carries a lethal charge of electricity.

• The shacks are part of a home-spun, hazardous electricity distribution network carrying kilowatts of power along exposed lines that can kill individuals, burn down camps and destroy property and belongings.

Why? Because shack dwellers want free electricity and are prepared to steal it.

And you thought all shack fires were caused by paraffin stoves.

My immediate reaction, on hearing this, was that the shack dwellers are incredibly stupid. Electricity is dangerous stuff to fiddle with and the risks that these people have exposed their community to are monumental. But that’s just a small part of the problem.

If the shack dwellers are advised, by an article in a community newspaper, to use insulated wires, what difference does that make? It might be marginally safer, but these illegal connections are still gravely dangerous. There’s no Earth leakage system to prevent deaths, no power cut-out switch to prevent overloading, no relays, no plug points, no nothing.

Extend this pattern of illegal connections outside of the squatter camps and shacks, to the more established townships. Electricity theft in these areas is so extensive that Chris Yelland of EE Publishers told delegates at a conference held in Johannesburg earlier this year, that electricity theft is so great it’s equivalent to the entire production of a major power station.

His initial estimates show that South Africa is losing at least 3 800 megawatts of electricity every year to illegal connections. Yelland’s figures could be woefully low and actual electricity losses could be much higher than that.

At the same time, Public Enterprises Minister Brigitte Mabandla has appealed to all South Africans to reduce electricity consumption, warning that if this is not done then power rationing will be introduced. She says that the reduction in electricity consumption has fallen well short of the target of 10% and on average South African’s are saving just two percent of the electricity they use.

Law-abiding South Africans, who are legally connected to the distribution network, who pay their monthly bills and who use electricity responsibly, are threatened with the government’s “big stick” approach: cut electricity useage or we’ll cut you off.

However, electricity thieves are ignored by the government which does nothing to prevent the thefts, reduce the risks or disconnect illegal connections.

Mabandla’s instruction to cut electricity consumption is about as stupid as the notion of connecting an electricity supply to a distribution box using uninsulated, stolen fencing wire.

Surely the obvious solution is simply to disconnect the illegal connections and make absolutely certain that no one can reconnect them. This way, in the metaphoric blink of an eye, Eskom’s shortages are resolved, the maintenance programmes can remain in place and millions of law-abiding South Africans can continue to live in peace, warmth and light.

By not removing these illegal connections, national government departments, along with their lackeys in provincial and municipal government, are endangering people’s lives and are putting South Africa’s economic and industrial growth goals out of reach.

And we call this sensible government?

It might make sense to you but it makes no sense to me at all.

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