South African Electricity Supply Infrastructure Crumbles

Only sixteen percent of blacks in the sprawling South African township of Soweto, Johannesburg, pay for their electricity, while South Africa’s electricity supply infrastructure is rapidly crumbling due to incompetent Third World management and lack of maintenance.
 Ash build-up at the Lethabo power station, Free State.

The situation is so dire that local media have now reported that the government has been briefed on emergency measures in the event of a total national electricity blackout.

The extent of the problem was graphically revealed when late last year, shock photographs—taken in secret by one of the employees of the state-run Electricity Supply Commission (Eskom)—were leaked of one of the country’s major power stations.

The pictures, taken at the coal-fired Lethabo power station, located in the northern Free State, showed that the interior of the plant had been consumed in mountains of ash. The ash deposits, located underneath the boilers in which the coal is burned, are supposed to be sucked out by hopper units and transported by conveyor belt to an ash stacker.

However, lack of maintenance caused the hoppers to become blocked. An Eskom spokesman admitted to media that the “power station had been run very hard and maintenance has previously been deferred,” and said that some of the “pipes may have to be replaced and it may take months to have the stacker and the rest of the system fully functional again.”

According to a report in local media, the power station—which provides 10 percent of South Africa’s electricity supply—had “been a month coming” and that employees had “repeatedly warned of impending critical equipment failures. But the warnings appear to have been ignored, resulting in conveyor belts used to transport ash failing.”

According to the report, a leak of highly toxic acid from the spillage catchment system had compounded the problem, and this has yet to be repaired, leading to mounting fears that the acid is seeping into the region’s underground-water system.

Lethabo is not the only power station to be literally crumbling. In November 2014, a silo at the Majuba power station, located in the eastern province of Mpumalanga, literally collapsed, destroying the coal feeder system.
Above and below: The Majuba power station collapse.
Meanwhile, other reports have revealed that only 16 percent of the township of Soweto (population, 1.3 million) actually pay their electricity bills, and have run up a four billion Rand debt.

The Soweto arrears date from 2003 and cover about 150,000 households directly supplied by Eskom, with 70,000 of these on prepaid systems. Of the 80,000 Soweto households without prepaid meters, only one in six pays for the electricity it uses.

The black refusal to pay for electricity is not limited to Soweto: the municipalities of Ngwathe, Dihlabeng, and Maluti-a-Phofung in the Free State, are collectively second-in-line in the non-payment ratings, and together owe more than R700-million to Eskom.

The few remaining white areas, of course, pay in full—and extra—to cover this shortfall, and then pay once again through taxation. The National Treasury has recently announced that it will be giving Eskom another R10-billion in June as part of a “financial aid package.” Whites in South Africa make up a disproportionately large number of individual and business taxpayers.

Meanwhile, the Johannesburg-based City Press newspaper has reported that the country’s “cabinet had been briefed by Eskom about the risk of a total national electricity blackout.”

According to that newspaper, Eskom had warned government it had no option but to continue “load shedding,” (deliberate and scheduled power cuts) because they could not “afford a total blackout.”

Eskom sources told City Press that a national blackout was a “very significant possibility for the foreseeable future” and that the situation is steadily getting worse.

Eskom should be able to generate 43,300MW of power on a 24-hour basis. However, on a good day, the power utility only produces 71 percent of its generation capacity owing to faults at its power stations—and the need for maintenance is critical.

“Lately, according to the utility’s own graphs, they have been operating at 65 percent on most days, the sources said, adding that Eskom was “standing at the edge of the precipice” and that “if two power stations experienced breakdowns without warning, we would be in deep trouble.

“And it is not unrealistic. Have you seen what Eskom’s power stations look like? The fact that more incidents haven’t taken place is a miracle.”