Senior journalist
4 minute read

Msunduzi to spend millions on electricity infrastructure repairs

By Chris Ndaliso

Repairs and maintenance of electricity infrastructure to cost the city.

Power station
Power station in Pietermaritzburg.

Thieves and vandals have wreaked havoc on Msunduzi’s electricity infrastructure, forcing the city to spend millions on repairs.

A report on the issue of streetlight outages due to theft and vandalism, which was tabled at a recent council meeting for consideration, reveals that the city needs R45 million for street-lighting supplies, R35 million for an external service provider to replace old steel street poles in the CBD and R25 million for attending to emergency repairs.

The report also sought a strategy to increase infrastructure reliability and resilience.

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The possibility of replacing the current streetlights and robots with solar systems to eliminate theft was raised during discussions about the matter, but there were concerns about the possible “rife theft” of batteries and solar panels.

It was, however, recommended that community services and electricity units work together to develop a security plan to curb vandalism of electricity infrastructure.

The approval of security guards to safeguard theft and vandalism hotspots for streetlight networks and any related electricity infrastructure around the city is to be put in place.

Other recommendations included that council authorise an additional R45 million budget in street-lighting supplies to buy new streetlight steel poles, cables, light emitting diode (LED) fittings and other items relating to the street-lighting maintenance.

It was also recommended that council authorises an additional R35 million for external service providers to replace the old steel streetlight poles in the CBD and the surrounding main roads and a further R25 million for the unplanned budget for attending to emergency repairs of light faults due to theft and vandalism or load shedding.

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In the past four years, the city’s electricity supply services have seen a dramatic, sharp increase in the number of theft and vandalism incidents that have significantly impacted its street-lighting network.

While all these types of incidents are endemic to electrical and lighting systems due to the value of metals (poles and copper cables) and LED fittings, according to the report, the cumulative damage and its profound effect have required the electricity unit to triple its resource requests to keep pace with outages.

The electricity supply services street-lighting section designs, constructs, and maintains approximately 19 241 streetlights within the city. The system has different types of lights, ranging from modern to historic lighting systems. For the past four financial years, the municipality has spent more than R35 million on the maintenance of the street-lighting network.

The lights are supported by a vast underground network of almost 465 500 metres of copper cables running on direct ground and conduit for road crossings.

“The other street-lighting network is supported by means of overhead lines of about 405 360 metres via wooden/steel/concrete poles,” reads the report.

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This information was verified during night inspections conducted in 2020, but the city first saw a “sharp uptick” in the theft between 2019/20 to 2022/23 financial years.

During this period, the theft concentrated in the upper and lower CBD, Copesville, Archie Gumede Road, Swapo, Honeyville, Birthday, the Grange and Mkhondeni areas. Some of the mitigation strategies are the use of aluminum aerial bundle conductors, and newly designed streetlight poles with inspection covers three metres above ground level, among others.

IFP leader in uMgungundlovu District and Msunduzi councillor, Thinasonke Ntombela, said it was a concern that the city would seek to spend millions on external service providers when they have their own internal electricity unit.

“If we are not well capacitated internally, then this should be a clear call for the capacitation of the city’s electricity department to avoid sending millions out to external service providers,” said Ntombela.

DA caucus leader in Msunduzi Ross Strachan said the municipality has no ability to prioritise, manage and spend on core functions. He said the amount of external service providers that are “creeping in” especially when there was “in-house” capacity, was a great cause for concern.

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The ACDP’s Rienus Niemand said properly planned maintenance would have prevented such “huge costs”.

The lack of security in the protection of council assets is of concern. The security department is dysfunctional in a number of areas. The administration has continually been urged to refrain from using outside contractors and consultants and to train and use internal staff in order to save money and raise its level of internal expertise to no avail. This matter must be addressed urgently.