Powerless on surge claims

2014-06-05 00:00

WE install alarm systems and ugly spikes or razor wire around our homes, and spend hundreds monthly for armed response. Many of us cover for the resource limits of the 10111 police call centre by signing up to the excellent community emergency network SA CAN. Some of us even patrol our own streets at night like right-wing paramilitaries, and give up gym or precious family time to attend CPF and neighbourhood watch meetings — all in addition, of course, to the taxes we pay for police security.

But despite all this, we might arrive home, any day, to the smell of smoke, and the discovery that our appliances have been destroyed by a theft-generated electricity surge. Without setting foot on our properties, or even our streets, thieves are still able to invade KZN homes and wreak havoc, by stealing the neutral copper cable within municipal substations.

In doing so, they change the safe 220-volt trickle into a destructive 380-volt flood, frying everything from washing machines and TVs to laptops and electric gate motors. As part of a broader investigation into cable theft, The Witness has found that residents are losing an average of R20 000 worth of devices in each incident.

But here’s the kicker: victims are typically told by their insurance companies that they’re actually not covered for this kind of damage — then the municipalities responsible for those substations say they won’t pay.

Even more amazing, neither the insurance companies nor the power utilities can tell us what gadgets we can buy to guarantee our homes will be safe from this phenomenon.

In summary then, no matter how responsible and conscientious you are as a citizen and homeowner, there is a realistic chance you could simply lose R20 000 because of a “petty theft” on a property far away from yours. And that chance is growing, with dozens of substations hit in Maritzburg in the past eight months, and professional syndicates now looting substations along the M7, in particular, and in many other suburbs in Durban.

Obviously, this insecurity and injustice for homeowners and business owners is unacceptable. And there is no longer a legal defence for municipalities to claim, as eThekwini does, that they are never liable for these damages due to “adequate” security measures.

Last year, the public protector made a precedent-setting ruling, in the case of a Cape Town resident whose appliances were fried after thieves caused a municipal power surge. The municipality had refused a damage claim for R18 000 from the resident on the grounds that it had not been negligent, and that its security measures at the Kanarieway substation had been “adequate”. But Thuli Madonsela found that the barbed wire and padlocks that secured the substation were woefully inadequate as a deterrent to cable thieves. She said this system also failed to comply with National Energy Regulator of South Africa (Nersa) guidelines, and that cable theft was now so rife that authorities should reasonably expect their substations to be targets. The regulator recommends a “three-point locking system” for substation door panels, and welded protections for the padlocks themselves.

Most of KZN’s substations are “protected” with the same inadequate system Cape Town uses.

Meanwhile, it’s not up to us to prove negligence: section 25 of the Electricity Regulation Act states that municipalities have to prove they were not negligent.

Finally, the protector ordered Cape Town to review its electricity supply bylaws, as they “contradicted” this act — by-laws that are equally flawed in KZN.

In September last year, eThekwini city manager Sibusiso Sithole told local media that the municipality would have to “rethink” its surge claims policy in light of Madonsela’s finding, because “this case can open doors for other residents”.

Yet nothing has happened. Instead, homeowners like Eddie Thompson, whose home in New Germany was blitzed by over voltage in April, continue to be told by eThekwini Electricity that “the council does not cover damages that result from power surges created as a result of cable theft”.

A new task team in Maritzburg has cut substation raids from 12 to five each month, and The Witness investigation has found that eThekwini Electricity has begun installing alarms and automated pepper spray systems in 200 of its 3 000 substations.

These are steps in the right direction. But, for the many Durban residents who have already had their claims rejected, this begs the question: if eThekwini was supposedly not negligent because the security at its raided substations was “adequate”, then how does the city explain the sudden need to add alarms and pepper spray? And does it even claim to abide by the Nersa guidelines?

Cable theft is a massive and complex problem, and KZN’s municipalities are entitled to demand multi-agency assistance to protect their infrastructure, including a dedicated SAPS investigative unit. And there are positive new initiatives in both Maritzburg and Durban, which is to launch its own “Copperheads”-style policing unit later this year,

While we must brace for surges in municipal power at our homes, our municipalities should now brace for a surge in damage claims they can no longer ignore.

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