Fixing it will take a year — Joburg east suburbs battle electricity, water woes after substation blaze

Heartache for those dealing with costly, chaotic situation

23 February 2024 - 10:21
By Anna Cox
Residents of Yeoville, Bellevue, Bertrams, Upper Houghton, Kensington, Bezuidenhout Valley, Cyrildene, Dewetshof, Observatory and Bruma say their lives have been miserable since a fire at a substation in December.
Image: City Power Residents of Yeoville, Bellevue, Bertrams, Upper Houghton, Kensington, Bezuidenhout Valley, Cyrildene, Dewetshof, Observatory and Bruma say their lives have been miserable since a fire at a substation in December.

Heartache, pain, financial loss and anger are what Johannesburg’s eastern suburb residents say they been feeling since December while enduring daily, and often week-long, power and water outages over and above load-shedding.

This has resulted in service delivery protests and the launch of a petition to the City of Joburg last week to stop load-shedding until proper repairs are done to a substation in Observatory which burned down in December, destroying the entire control room and an 88KV oil cable.

Residents of wards 66, 67 and 118 (Yeoville, Bellevue, Bertrams, Upper Houghton, Kensington, Bezuidenhout Valley, Cyrildene, Dewetshof, Observatory and Bruma) said their lives have been miserable since December after the fire.

They have experienced constant outages, some spanning nearly seven days.

Residents claimed they are losing thousands of rand in spoiled food, some are losing their businesses and old age homes have not been able to provide hot meals for residents. They said criminals take advantage of the power cuts to commit crimes, hijack cars and steal cables leading to further power cuts, all under the cover of total darkness due to street lights being off.

The electrical faults also resulted in water outages as pumps rely on power to operate.

There is no immediate end in sight.

The City of Joburg said this could continue until the end of the year.

A service delivery protest was held in Yeoville last week where tyres were burned. Residents are planning a mass protest on February 24 at Rhodes Park in Kensington.

At a recent meeting held between City Power officials and residents, the utility blamed residents for using too much power.

Residents blamed the city for failing to:

  • manage uncontrolled overcrowding and illegal businesses;
  • plan for maintenance and fix infrastructure that is old and not capable of catering to the additional number of people; and
  • conduct patch-up repairs to cables.

The DA has launched a petition, which garnered 2,000 signatures, which it handed to City Power officials on Monday, calling for a halt to load-shedding until the substation problems are fixed.

Residents know where the problems lie and we are willing to take on the monitoring work and do street-by-street audits
Navin Bachu, community activist 

Navin Bachu, a Kensington community activist, said the situation for residents was chaotic.

“We hear daily heartbreaking stories of people throwing out food. Just as they bought food thinking the outages were over, they started again,” he said.

“We are not an affluent community that can afford inverters and solar systems. The level of pain, anger and heartache is unbelievable.”

Bachu said the problems experienced include that no regular meetings are held between residents and city departments to discuss the problems in wards so plans can be made to address them, and to facilitate communication between them.

“Residents know where the problems lie and we are willing to take on the monitoring work and do street-by-street audits.

“The city is losing revenue through its mismanagement.

“Trenches are left open for years by different departments, refuse is not collected, vandalism is not addressed, and this creates a negative environment which leads to residents not caring about their environment. This is evident as the suburbs deteriorate, causing property values to drop,” he said.

Abrar Cassim, a Dewetshof community activist, said residents have had enough.

“We are ignored as a community. We get blamed for using too much power while there are hundreds of illegal connections. Those of us who have generators spend thousands on fuel. We have no water for days. This has been going on for weeks. Nothing is done to assist us,” he said.

DA ward councillor Carlos da Rochas, said the past weeks have been miserable for residents, with different reasons given for outages affecting different suburbs.

“City Power has blamed residents for using too much power but said cables need a major upgrade and that a new transformer for the overloaded substations is needed. I share the scepticism of residents about City Power's excuses for an unacceptable situation. It appears there was substandard repair work and a lack of forward planning. The cabling in old suburbs should have been replaced many years ago.

“The cessation of load-shedding while repairs are done will not only provide relief but also prevent further breakdowns in ageing infrastructure that is continually shut off and on. It will also speed up repairs as technicians cannot work on the network when it is off,” he said.

The City of Joburg however, has accused the DA of an “audacious display of political opportunism”.

MMC for environment and infrastructure Jack Sekwaila said: “The DA claims the [lack of] power supply is because of the city’s financial inefficiencies and that not enough is being done. The December fire would ordinarily have taken about 90 days to commission back into service and we did it much quicker.

“A decision was taken to install new interconnector cables on a stretch of 3km between the Observatory and Bellevue substations. This enabled us to restore power supply to both substations within seven days as opposed to three months. Additional measures were taken immediately to reinstate power to essential services such as the Yeoville water reservoir, clinic and police station.”

Sekwaila said due to the intense nature of this work, which will involve a multidisciplinary approach, they expect to conclude and fully reinstate the two substations to their original state within the next 12 months.

“In the meantime, our teams are prioritising outage calls in the areas which we expect will persist until we have finally resolved the underlying challenges.”

City Power did an investigation on how to permanently put a stop to regular outages, he said, and it found:

  • there is aged and out-of-lifespan infrastructure (more than 60 years);
  • load-shedding frequency affects the infrastructure and restoration process;
  • the reinstatement of the station was based on temporary measures to minimise the downtime to seven days;
  • old oil cables take long to fix due to unavailability of spares;
  • some of the control cables and components which remained in service could have been affected by the heat and high temperatures, resulting in malfunctioning;
  • theft and vandalism during the seven-day downtime affected the integrity of the network;
  • the network has not been fully reinstated to its normal operating conditions after the fire;
  • due to these network conditions, more new faults are experienced daily; and
  • it was discovered that almost half the power supply interruptions resulted from normal faults on transmission lines.

These steps are being taken by City Power to resolve the unplanned interruptions: 

  • At Observatory substation — a third transformer is being commissioned to have a back-up supply and temporary measures are being converted to permanent ones.
  • At Bellevue substation — the faulty 88KV oil cable will be repaired as a short-term solution, and all old oil cables between Observatory and Bellevue will be replaced with XLPE cables as a long-term solution. A standby transformer is being installed to have a back-up supply.