As electric utility Eskom struggles with high debt and frequent outages leading to increasing tax shedding, it now also has to contend with organized crime syndicates in its ranks.
In a parliamentary question and answer this week, Police Minister Bheki Cele noted that the SAPS has identified and filed 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 are now facing charges in four coal theft cases in court.
The Sunday Times reported in August that criminal syndicates have hijacked thousands of tons of Eskom coal and sold it to international buyers at a hefty premium.
Agents work at a “black site” around Middelburg in Mpumalanga, stealing coal on its way from mines to power plants. Coal is then unloaded and replaced with lower quality products or discarded coal by-products which the thieves then send to the power plants.
These low-quality products are either highly inefficient at generating the heat needed to produce electricity or can damage production units, resulting in costly outages that increase the likelihood of power outages.
The second syndicate identified by the SAPS relates to conductor cable theft, in which 14 suspects were arrested and charged in three lawsuits.
Copper theft is a major problem in South Africa and is often the cause of non-cargo outages in many areas. Syndicates that facilitate and orchestrate the theft have been busted many times — including a major raid in May 2022 — but new players are always emerging.
The Ministry of Trade and Industry has proposed regulations to tackle copper theft by making the trade in scrap metal cumbersome and expensive.
“The DPCI continues to receive information related to various criminal activities, including those in Eskom,” the minister said. “The crime intelligence division is currently gathering information to identify criminal syndicates operating in and around Eskom.”
Cele further noted that cases have also been opened against Eskom workers who started an illegal strike in June. It was during this strike that acts of sabotage were also registered by the electric company, which forced it to implement phase 6 load shedding.
The police minister said 310 cases have been registered in relation to the strike and 71 people have been arrested.
Eskom announced the load shedding of phase 6 last weekend as the group continued to lose production units in its plants, while unable to do the necessary maintenance to keep them online.
Andre de Ruyter, CEO of Eskom, addressed the media this week and said there is no indication that sabotage has played a role in the latest round of tax shedding.
The level of rolling blackouts was reduced to phase 5 on Tuesday and Eskom said it will continue at this phase until at least Thursday.
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