Saboteurs threaten to exacerbate South Africa’s power blackouts

South Africa’s state-owned power utility already struggling to avoid breakdown at its plants and nationwide blackouts, has another crisis on its hands: sabotage.

Eskom has reported cables being intentionally cut and rising theft at its plants, with the latest incident Friday, according to South Africa’s Minister of Public Enterprises Pravin Gordhan. Power cuts have become a daily occurrence over the last two weeks as the most industrialized nation on the continent heads for a record year of outages, disrupting daily life and crimping economic growth.

Eskom, which generates almost all of the nation’s electricity, reported that a cable required to start and synchronize a unit was vandalized at the Hendrina coal-fired station, Gordhan, who oversees the utility, told lawmakers in Cape Town. Similar incidents at another plant and corruption around oil supply have directly caused recent power cuts.

The crimes reflect South Africa’s challenge in protecting its infrastructure. Incidents of cable theft that impair the state-owned rail system have also grown out of control, limiting mining exports and company profits. The tapping of pipelines for fuel and oil has resulted in spills that damage the environment.

The government has introduced interventions to strengthen security for public assets, noting an incident where Eskom had to withdraw services because violence was directed at its employees and equipment was stolen, Minister in The Presidency Mondli Gungubele said Thursday in a statement.

Eskom has missed goals toward improving the reliability of its mainly coal-fired power stations that are prone to breakdowns. The energy availability of its generation assets are at just 58%, well below its 75% target, according to Gordhan.

The worsening situation comes as South Africa sees increased demand for power during its winter months of June, July and August.

Eskom has filed charges with the police over another incident of sabotage at the Tutuka power station. There have been five such cases since March 2021, it said Thursday in a statement. The latest acts occurred despite earlier initiatives to increase security.

The utility in the past reported significant cases of sabotage in 2018 as employees protested over wage negotiations. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa also said power outages in 2019 were caused by intentional acts.

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