Johannesburg - Below the streets of Jozi, a war is being fought. Sometimes the losers of this fight are the charred bodies that emergency services pull to the surface or more often it is the citizens of the inner-city who go days without electricity.
This war happens in the 9km of cable tunnel that rings the city and for a long time the authorities have been losing the fight. The cables that link substations are what keep the lights on.
What they are up against are well-organised syndicates who have an insider-knowledge of how the city’s electrical grid is wired and are able to slip the stolen cables out of the country.
Now the city plans to up the ante in the battle. On Friday, its utility, City Power, said it would be introducing measures to curb cable theft.
This comes as City Power was still battling to restore electricity to the Joburg CBD following a tunnel fire that destroyed at least 2km of cable last Saturday evening.
Workers are having to manhandle 32km of copper cabling into tunnels to get the power restored.
City Power’s Louis Pieterse said on Friday the utility hoped that the power would be restored by Monday.
The cost of the theft has been estimated at R45million. And the war is escalating.
“In 2004/05, 4% of outages were as a result of cable theft. Today it is 40%,” says Pieterse.
The theft last week followed the usual modus operandi used by copper thieves.
According to Pieterse, the thieves gained access to the 2m by 1.5m tunnels through a manhole cover.
Then they set the cables alight to burn the plastic coating. “Once this burns the copper wires touch and this causes a short,” explains Pieterse.
With the copper now “dead”, the thieves can either chop it up or attach ropes to the cabling and pull it out of the manhole with the use of a vehicle. The authorities often only know of the theft when they see smoke billowing from an open manhole cover.
“The people involved need some knowledge to be able to do this,” says Pieterse, adding: “This is very, very dangerous work.”
Often the thieves, explains Pieterse, leave traces of their work in the tunnels. Sometimes it is bottles of petrol, or just a takkie.
Bodies are found. “If we get a short between 1 and 2am, we know that it is most likely cable theft,” he says.
But now the city is putting in place several measures to combat the theft in the tunnels.
They will be installing cameras and smoke detectors. New manhole covers will also be installed that have special security locks. This is expected to cost R5m. Another initiative is that copper wiring will be replaced with aluminium, which is cheaper.
However, this time round they will be replacing the stolen and burnt cables with copper.
This is because City Power is using up their existing stocks of copper before introducing aluminium.
Above ground, there have also been successes. This week 22 people were arrested for copper theft after several raids on scrapyards.
“You know, before this no one had been arrested for copper theft in Johannesburg,” says Lucky Sindane, the spokesperson for the city’s group investigation department.
Some of the stolen copper recovered has been linked to the tunnel fire.
On Friday morning, there was a further breakthrough when Joburg metro police officers stopped a truck following a tip-off.
The truck, from Namibia, was found to be carrying 4tons of copper.
But, as the authorities battle to restore electricity to the city and take the fight to the copper syndicates, the people of Jozi are preparing for another weekend without power.
Across the city is the continual thud of generators bringing power to the lucky, but for others, no electricity means added household expenses.
Nonkwanda Khalishwayo and Thembelihle Gumbi live in a flat on the corner of Commissioner and Goud streets and have had a week without power.
“We have had to throw away all the food in the fridge and we have to eat take outs and it is expensive,” says Khalishwayo.