Access to stolen electricity more important than safety - shack dwellers

2016-04-13 17:13
(Tammy Petersen, News24)

(Tammy Petersen, News24)

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Cape Town - Illegal connections may cause loss of limbs, burns and even death, but in Marikana township in Philippi this seems a small price to pay for access to electricity.

The shackland has been identified by Eskom as the area with the highest prevalence of illegal connections, followed by settlements in Crossroads, Rooidakke in Grabouw, Khayelitsha, Waggebietjie, Marcus Garvey and Witsand.

Officials visited Marikana for a public safety tour on Wednesday to spread awareness of the risks of using illegal and dangerous connections.

But the people benefiting form the illegal connection say that safety concerns pale in comparison with the privilege of having access to electricity.

'How will I pay an electricity bill?'

When Sindi Gwala moved to the settlement two years ago, she cooked her food on an open fire and used candles for light.

"I was here for a week when someone came to my door and asked if I wanted power. He said he charged a fee of R500 to connect it, then I will be able to buy a TV and make my food indoors," she recalled.

"I thought it was a miracle. Electricity is a luxury for me. Where I come from in the Eastern Cape, only the rich can afford to have proper light in their houses. I took a loan to pay him. Two days later, my children watched TV on a set I got from my sister. It was wonderful."

Gwala acknowledges that what she is doing is illegal, but says she would never be able to afford electricity any other way.

"I am a domestic worker. With the money I make right now, I can barely afford to feed and clothe my two small children. How will I pay an electricity bill?" she asked.

"My sister lives in a brick house in Khayelitsha. Her electricity usage is about R800 a month. Sometimes that isn't even enough and they have to sit in the dark because there is no money to buy more units."

Access to electricity is easy in Marikana, Sithembiso Xola told News24.

"Here [there] are quite a few people clever enough to figure this system out. They are not stupid. Some charge a few hundred, while others ask over R1 000 for danger pay," he explained.

"We don't have many shack fires here any more because we don't use candles. We have lights now. Nobody came and gave us the power, so we decided to take it. Eskom can afford to pay [for] it."

'The shack becomes a conductor'

Eskom's Western Cape provincial head, Alwie Lester, said the revenue loss from illegal connections was less than 6%, and that the financial loss took a back seat to the safety ramifications.

He warned that electrocution did not only happen when someone touched a line.

"The cable that they use, [which does not meet regulatory standards], wears through and when it starts to make contact with the metal of the shack, the shack becomes a conductor. 

"We have had multiple incidents where people in their homes have been electrocuted because of an unsafe connection coming from another household."

Attempts by Eskom to disconnect illegal connections can become volatile when communities respond with violence, he said.

It was "frightening" to see the number of people injured by illegal, unsafe connections, Lester added.

"We understand the need of people to be electrified. But our request is if you want to be electrified, you need to make [an official] application."

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