As power utility Eskom struggles with high debt, and frequent breakdowns leading to increasing load shedding, it now also has to contend with organised crime syndicates among its ranks.
Responding in a parliamentary Q&A this week, police minister Bheki Cele noted that the SAPS has identified and laid cases against at least two major criminal syndicates operating out of Eskom.
The first is a coal theft syndicate, which was identified by the priority crime investigation unit, where four accused employees were arrested and now face charges in four coal theft cases in court.
The Sunday Times reported in August that criminal syndicates have hijacked thousands of tonnes of Eskom coal and sold it at a hefty premium to international buyers.
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Operatives work at a “black site” around Middelburg in Mpumalanga, stealing coal on the way from mines to power stations. Coal is then offloaded and replaced with lower-grade products or discarded coal by-products that the thieves then send to the power stations.
These low-quality products are either highly inefficient at generating the heat required to produce electricity or can damage generating units, resulting in costly breakdowns that increase the likelihood of load-shedding.
The second syndicate identified by the SAPS relates to conductor cable theft, where 14 accused were arrested and face charges in three cases in court.
Copper theft is a major issue in South Africa and is often the cause of non-load-shedding-related outages in many areas. Syndicates who facilitate and orchestrate the theft have been caught many times – including a major bust in May 2022 – but new players always crop up.
The Department of Trade and Industry has put forward proposed regulations to clamp down on copper theft by making the trade in scrap metal onerous and expensive.
“The DPCI continues to receive information relating to various criminal activities, including those occurring at Eskom,” the minister said. “The crime intelligence division is currently collecting intelligence to identify criminal syndicates that are operating within and around Eskom.”
Cele noted further that cases have also been opened against Eskom workers who embarked on an illegal strike in June. It was during this strike that acts of sabotage were also recorded by the power utility, which forced it to implement stage 6 load shedding.
The police minister said that 310 cases have been registered relating to the strike, and 71 people have been arrested.
Eskom announced stage 6 load shedding this past weekend as the group continued to lose generating units at its power stations, while being unable to do the necessary maintenance to keep them online.
Addressing the media this week, Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter said there has been no indication that sabotage has played a role in the latest round of load shedding.
The level of rolling blackouts was reduced to stage 5 on Tuesday, and Eskom said that it will continue at this stage until at least Thursday.
Read: Increase in home break-ins during longer load shedding periods