Illegal electricity connections spark tension in East London

Illegal electricity connections are said to be the cause of electrocution of the children in Marikana informal settlement. Archive photo by Sandiso Phaliso.

Tension is brewing between informal settlements and those who live in brick houses in East London over illegal electricity connections.

Nomthunzi Thabatha barely uses electricity and when she does it’s only for a day or two in two weeks because her electricity trips often. The problem is caused by the houses in her neighbourhood of Amalinda in East London that are connected illegally. She frequently has to call the Buffalo City Metropolitan Municipality (BCMM) electricity department to reconnect her. Her major problem, she says, is people living in informal settlements connecting illegally to the power lines in her area. She has resorted to cooking outside or using paraffin stoves for energy and this is frustrating her too much.

The municipality says Izinyoka, illegal electricity connections, is costing the BCMM tens of millions of rands annually.
The municipal spokesperson, Samkelo Ngwenya, says the city often removes the unsafe wiring but “as soon as these webs of wiring are removed residents replace them”.

Spending time in Duncan Village, Braelyn, Gompo, Mdantsane and Scenary Park, Elitsha could see the spiderwebs of deadly wires above alleys and side streets that clearly pose a danger. The wires hang so low that one can touch them without having to use a ladder.

Thabatha said she does not regard herself as owning an electricity meter box because she is most often disconnected. “It’s frustrating. I cannot use electric appliances anymore because there is never electricity in this area. Instead of using a washing machine I do the washing with my hands. I cook outside. There is just nothing I can do electrically. I bought electric equipment but it’s sitting there unused, it’s a shame,” said Thabatha. “The municipality does come when electricity trips but as soon as the officials go, informal settlement dwellers reconnect,” she said.

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Another resident, who lives in a legally connected home in Duncan village, Aviwe Msekeli, echoed Thabatha’s frustrations, saying that children were “at risk of being electrocuted and illegal connections could spark fires”.

“Both us and the municipality were fighting a losing battle because there is a syndicate in informal settlements that help connect shacks on grids for money,” said Msekeli. “If we complain to the informal settlement residents we are shouted at, and our lives are at risk because we are threatened.” 

A resident, whose electricity is illegally connected, who wanted to remain anonymous fearing reprisals from the metro, confirmed she paid R500 for the connection. “It costs another R100 if your electricity wires is damaged and you want a reconnection. We do this because we don’t have electricity connected to our homes and we know it is dangerous but we don’t have a choice,” said the resident.

Ngwenya said the municipality is aware of ‘syndicates’ helping the informal settlement residents connect to the grid.

It was not difficult for Elitsha to track down a member of the ‘syndicate’, who will remain anonymous. He is unemployed and connecting informal settlements is his job. “This is how I make a living because there are no jobs. I am a qualified electrician and I know what I am doing,” he said. Monthly he makes up to R5,000 and shares the money with his helpers. “What we do is dangerous, illegal and could send us to jail or death, thus we price so much,” he said. 
He said they operate in not less than ten informal settlements around BCMM.

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