Electricity consumption

2008-11-26 00:00

ON Monday, an article in this newspaper by Paddy Hartdegen entitled “Double Standards” outlined the way in which people in townships and informal settlements steal electricity, using the crudest and most dangerous means, such as fence wire. Initial estimates, which may be too low, indicate that South Africa is losing some 3 800 megawatts of electricity annually in this way. This large-scale theft, says Hartdegen, is ignored by the government — even though one side effect of the use of uninsulated wire is electrical fires which may devastate whole communities. Nothing is done to prevent the thefts, reduce the risks or dismantle illegal connections. Instead, Public Enterprises Minister Brigitte Mabandla focuses on law-abiding, bill-paying South Africans legally connected to the grid, waving the governmental big stick and demanding that they reduce electricity consumption or face power rationing.

Double standards indeed. Of course, the task of providing amenities for all without being too hard on the very poor is a monumental one: the basic quota of free water and electricity allowed for poor communities has been a mere drop in the ocean of demand. However, it is unacceptable that the government turns a blind eye to (or even tacitly condones) electricity piracy, and that there’s little or no attempt to police the pirates and cut off the illegal supply. So why has Mabandla allowed fairness and safety and plain common sense to take a back seat? The answer may be that, like so many in the upper echelons of the ruling party, she’s protecting herself, striving not to antagonise poor voters before next year’s election. Since the government can’t afford to supply the services people are clamouring for, the next best thing is to ignore the fact that they’re helping themselves at legal consumers’ expense.

It’s essential that this wanton draining of the national grid be halted, and that ways of preventing the deaths and destruction of property caused by illegal use of electricity are found — and all of this without penalising legal consumers struggling to keep up with increasing tariffs. There should, surely, be a formally appointed monitoring body, with inspection teams routinely checking for infringements, and full-time technical teams to disconnect illegal installations. There should, also, be a workable plan to replace the illegal wiring with safe connections so that, little by little, the communities concerned will gain proper access to the power they so much covet. It’s tough, but it’s not insuperable, if only Mabandla will address herself to it honestly and energetically, without attempting to distract attention from her own and her department’s shortcomings.

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