News / Opinion / Columns

Martin Williams
3 minute read
28 Mar 2018
6:30 am

Why the power keeps going off in Joburg

Martin Williams

Much of the power infrastructure is old. Obsolete circuit breakers are still in operation. The oldest was installed in 1929.

Picture: Gallo Images

Recent rains have taken their toll on Johannesburg’s infrastructure. Electricity, water, roads, bridges, buildings have all been affected.

Swamped by complaints about outages, we councillors and officials would like to be able to respond more effectively. We are doing our best.

Why does it seem so bad? What’s being done and when will everything run smoothly?

The root cause is simple: maintenance and infrastructure have been neglected for decades. But neither these words nor a recitation of figures can convey the message clearly enough.

Joburg residents feel the brunt of neglect most keenly when wind and rain lash the city. A R170 billion infrastructure backlog may sound meaningless, but you notice the impact when the power is off for days because there is not enough money or capacity to maintain and upgrade the electricity network.

Much of the power infrastructure is old. Obsolete circuit breakers are still in operation. The oldest was installed in 1929. Some of the cabling is from the ’60s. Over time it gets worn, or damaged by, for example, workers digging up pavements.

In these conditions there can be many causes of electricity outages. Here is one example: with heavy rains excessive amounts of water seep into the ground, exposing weaknesses in the cable. As a result, hundreds of households may lose power. These underground faults can be more difficult to trace than, for instance, cases where wind-blown branches have knocked overhead cables.

Certain customers imagine all that’s required to restore power is the mere flick of a switch somewhere. In fact, tracing faults and testing can take many hours.

Solutions to the city’s problems are not as simple as instant coffee.

I have been impressed by the forbearance of residents, some of whose power has been unstable for days. Those simply fed-up people cannot be blamed if their expectations are not met.

One aspect which we, as a city, could improve is communication during these disruptions. Communication, communication, communication. People will put up with a lot of inconvenience if they feel they are being kept in the loop and their concerns taken seriously.

Effective communication about the true extent of the infrastructure backlog is also necessary, so people can have a better understanding of why things go awry.

Very few want to pore over large volumes of factual detail. But it is available. Mayor Herman Mashaba gave an excellent presentation last year.

If you download it here – https://bit.ly/2I68Y9z – and keep it, you’ll be able to get informed answers to questions about the true state of the city’s infrastructure. Some might call it inferior-structure.

When will everything in Johannesburg run smoothly? That will happen when spending on infrastructure and maintenance makes enough inroads into the backlogs. When will that be? Who knows?

How will we get there? The route must include weeding out corruption and incompetence.

We must be lean, clean and efficient to achieve the goal of a Joburg that works.

DA city of Joburg councillor Martin Williams.

DA city of Joburg councillor Martin Williams.

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