Within just 72 hours last week two security guards in Johannesburg were killed, another landed up in an intensive care unit with a headshot wound and two more were held hostage by a gang wielding AK47s.
They were not soldiers and police officers, but brave individuals who were merely trying to protect electrical infrastructure and services in the city. They are contracted to City Power to try to address the runaway theft of cables and installations at substations that occurs on a daily basis.
They walk shoulder to shoulder with the city’s technicians every day to ensure that residents have uninterrupted power. Their job should not be a life threatening one as it has become now. Their families should not be mourning their deaths or worrying that their loved ones and breadwinners will return home after work.
Since July 2021 to date, 1 456 cases of vandalism and cable theft have been reported to City Power, which cost the city R24-million in damages and repairs. This is not even factoring in the economic cost that rolling blackouts cause to businesses and homes.
Johannesburg’s ability to provide reliable electricity to residents is being severely threatened and, despite all the good work being done to upgrade our power network, there are forces working against us to keep the lights on.
We will be proactive in mitigating these immediate risks. We will beef up security at hotspots and ensure we have more personnel at all our substations. We will install CCTV and alarm systems to act as an early warning system.
City Power is already spending R100-million annually on security measures and every cent spent protecting infrastructure means less money to keep the lights on. The situation is further exacerbated by the fact that most of the city’s cable servitudes pass through open fields, making them vulnerable to theft.
Without urgent and meaningful intervention by the country’s law enforcement agencies and prosecuting authority on this matter, it will simply continue. City Power and other local government entities responsible for power distribution around the country are under-resourced, over-stretched and outgunned when it comes to security.
The AK47 gang that held up security guards at City Power’s Cydna substation last week were not amateurs. They shut down the site within minutes; they made the security officers lie face down on the ground as their unmarked 4x4s ripped several hundred kilogrammes of copper cables from the ground. This shows all the signs of criminal groups that are well resourced and organised. It is robbery on a grand scale.
If we don’t have an urgent intervention from the police service on this issue, it will remain difficult to provide reliable electricity to Johannesburg residents. It is only the police who can investigate these crimes and the National Prosecuting Authority that can prosecute criminals. Establishing a specialised cable theft and infrastructure protection unit in the police service will be a positive start. If necessary, the government must even consider deploying the defence force to oversee and protect electrical infrastructure in the country.
The scrap metal industry also needs to be thoroughly regulated. The department of trade and industry must establish firm guidelines to control how scrap metal is bought and sold. It is impossible that the proprietors of these companies do not know where the stolen infrastructure they weigh and exchange for cash comes from — some of it is as obvious; street light and traffic light poles. In addition, dealers who decide to purchase stolen infrastructure need to be dealt with in the same way as the criminals who stole the items in the first place.
We all have a critical role to play. Members of the public can report anything that is suspicious to the police or their local municipal police force. We need all the eyes and ears we can muster to thwart this runaway theft of critical infrastructure so that services delivery can be uninterrupted.
Michael Sun is the MMC for Environment & Infrastructure Services department.