‘Free’ power, deadly cost

2014-06-16 00:00

CHILDREN are being fatally electrocuted by illegal power cables every month in KZN — and the premier has ordered a task team to investigate the true scale of the deaths.

Following a week in which the massive financial costs of metals theft were highlighted after the collapse of a major Durban water pipe, The Witness can reveal a cabinet-level effort to assess the fatal costs of this supposed “petty theft” epidemic.

In addition to the electrocution of thieves themselves — about twice per month in the country — parastatal investigators and parademics revealed that seven children and one adult had been killed in the past two months in informal settlements north of Durban.

The Witness has previously detailed a series of fatal incidents at settlements around Maritzburg, including Jika Joe.

Telkom investigator Barbara Cloete said: “We are getting reports that a number of children are being electrocuted when they step on live illegal connection lines, and then just being buried without the death being reported.”

In a statement to The Witness, Premier Senzo Mchunu confirmed Cloete’s information, saying: “Many communities who are afraid of being reprimanded by authorities are concealing such cases of death. This includes syndicates that are involved in cable theft.”

Mchunu said he was concerned at an increase in “unexplained deaths and unclaimed bodies” at provincial mortuaries, and believed the trend to be associated with stolen cable.

The statement said: “During the two-day Cabinet strategic meeting, the premier resolved that a task team should be appointed to investigate the causes of deaths of many unclaimed bodies.”

EMRS shift supervisor Pepsi Singh said he was aware of four electrocutions at the new Frasers informal settlement since March: “We get calls all the time to recover kids’ bodies; it’s so tragic and needless”.

City electricians and Metro police have also been shocked by jury-rigged cables this year — with Durban Metro K-9 handler Shawn Jooste explaining his experience in March as “like being hit with a baseball bat”.

Meanwhile, in Cape Town, one habitual juvenile cable thief — known as “Kentucky” by Copperheads investigators — has been relocated to a “place of safety” after being injured in major electrocutions at least three times.

Neil Arendse, head of the unit, said: “He’s only 15, but this poor kid from Uitsig has become so addicted to stealing live power cables that he looks like a mummy. We got SAPS to put him in a place of safety just to keep him alive.”

Cable theft investigator Gareth Rittels said the thin Telkom “twisted pair”cables — designed to carry only 50 volts of current — were overwhelmingly used to illegally carry 220 volts of electricity to informal houses in KZN, leading to a string of deadly hazards. He said thousands of these live cables lay exposed, often stripped of their insulation, in fields around KZN, “often laying in puddles and veld where children play”.

He said one set of illegal connections near Stanger repeatedly fell onto steel security fencing surrounding a municipal sub-station, “turning it into a seriously electrified fence, right opposite a primary school”.

Mchunu’s spokesperson, Ndabezinhle Sibiya, said the premier would tackle both the economic and human costs of cable theft with a major new campaign this week.

“The premier has undertaken to personally visit all areas that have been affected by cable theft to champion all efforts aimed at dealing with this problem. He has called on the national government, MECs and mayors to take a lead in ensuring that the issue of electricity is put on top of the agenda.”

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