Power theft closes city firm

2013-04-12 00:00

WHOLESALE theft of electricity, with thieves removing new cables as fast as they are being replaced, could be causing companies in Pietermaritzburg to to close down, leading to job losses.

This is what Dave Varrie believes. He should know — he continues to be a victim.

Varrie ran Bargain Blocks, a concrete block manufacturing business on Bambatha Road. The factory operated for seven years without a problem until the middle of last year when the thefts started and continued unrelentingly.

In the end, with losses running into hundreds of thousands of rands, the company was forced to close.

“We had to let 36 workers go who were bread­winners,” said Varrie.

“They say that for every person who loses his or her job, at least five others are affected; this was the sad consequence of the theft.”

Bargain Blocks first faced montly electricity bills of R20 000 and the cost increased as its electricity was being stolen.

It took Varrie months to sort out the problem, and only recently, after several representations to the municipality, Bargain Blocks was refunded R73 000.

Then the thieves brazenly hooked up to the mini substation that fed the factory. Each time an illegal connection went wrong, the plant experienced blow-outs and had to spend thousands on repairs on its machinery.

Varrie said that when the thieves needed masses of cabling to feed electricity to surrounding clients. they cut holes in the fence and dug trenches to steal the underground cables.

The thieves even sat in the factory yard and stripped the insulation of the cables. As soon as a cable was replaced, it was stolen.

Varrie said the last straw was a scary encounter with the thieves — they threatened to burn down the factory if they were identified and caught.

The factory was closed and the site lay empty for months until local businessman Naaz Moosa made an offer to buy it.

Varrie said he went through weeks of red tape to get the municipality to re-connect the electricity. It was finally done on Monday morning.

Two hours later he went to check the connection and was shocked to find the thieves trying to break the newly installed locks on the sub-station. They threatened him and he fled.

On Tuesday Varrie met Moosa at the site and municipal security staff and electricians arrived to examine the sub-station.

They found the locks broken and a web of cables leading from the plugs to the surrounding area. Residents gathered silently in the background watching as their illegal connections were removed.

Moosa has plans to employ 120 workers on the site and is optimistic about the new business venture, but admitted that Tuesday’s incident left him shaken.

The electricity and security team at Msunduzi Municipality said Varrie’s losses should give Pietermaritzburg residents an idea of how much money, time and effort went into combating electricity theft.

Electricity department head Sabata Nomnganga said money meant for maintenance and upgrading was being used to combat theft.

In the short term the department will consider moving the sub-station.

Msunduzi’s head of traffic and safety, Kwenza Khumalo, said there was a concerted, long-term drive to deal with the theft and assign task teams to work with the police, other municipalities and government departments.

Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business CEO Melanie Veness was sent an e-mail asking her how electricity theft was affecting businesses in the city. She was out of the office yesterday, but is expected to respond.

• nalini@witness.co.za

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