PICS | Damaged Joburg lights endanger residents’ lives

Crime increases as thugs take advantage of dark

Noxolo Sibiya Journalist
Many street lights in Johannesburg seem to be not working despite the country not experiencing load shedding.
Many street lights in Johannesburg seem to be not working despite the country not experiencing load shedding.
Image: Thulani Mbele

There are tens of thousands of street lights in the City of Joburg that do not work, leaving residents vulnerable to crime.

City Power said there were a total of 270,000 street lights in the municipality.

Of these, it said, less than 30% were not working mainly due to vandalism. This means about 81,000 street lights do not work.

Residents of Ebony Park in Midrand said their street lights have not been working since January and this has contributed to increased levels of crime in the area.

The power utility's spokesperson, Isaac Mangena, said: "Criminals purposely damage the street lights by fiddling with the supply points so that they can do criminal activities such as robbery, burglaries, or hijacking people without being detected."

Ebony Park resident Tshepo Fufi said crimes such as shootings, stabbings and robberies had become the norm.

"Being in the street after 8pm is just too risky and now that it's winter, the dark sets in a bit early. Once you lose visibility, you become an easy target," he said.

"These street lights, as you see them, have not been working for months. A cable was stolen and some of the poles were stripped of some components. Some lights appeared to have been cut off and cables stolen.

Another resident, Vavi Matlala, said  his home was broken into in June 2023, adding that robbers often capitalised on the darkness.

"There are always gunshots going off in this area and when you look out you just see sparks. That's how dark it is. Even if the shooter was in my yard, I would not see him," he said.

"But these criminals are not only in the dark, they get us in our homes. I have had armed people break into my home at night and they attacked my tenants, stabbing one of them in the face.

"I now have knives, a machete, a sjambok and a golf stick to defend myself."

Areas such as Kliprivier Drive, the M1 Highway and Jim Fouché Drive near Woodmead are pitch-black due to street lights not working.

Motorist Mmeli Peters said driving in the dark made him feel vulnerable to crime. "Sometimes I do not stop at the traffic lights because it's so dark and smashers might be waiting somewhere.

"I use the M1 a lot as part of my work as a driver and I also drive in the Randburg area and it is very dark and honestly, I do not have a choice but to use the roads. Sometime you cannot see the potholes."

Another motorist, Phemelo Sepeng, said she has developed a trick she uses when driving in the dark.

"I put a hat on the passenger seat headrest, so from far, it looks like I'm with someone," she said.

"The darkness also means I cannot stop to check if I hear weird sounds in the car, I just keep moving until I get to a garage."

Mangena said the city has incurred over R160m in infrastructure theft and vandalism in the current financial year, causing significant financial losses and safety concerns due to reduced visibility at night.

"This blatant attack on our electricity infrastructure is experienced across the city, with the Inner City, Randburg and Roodepoort being hard-hit by these criminal elements," said Mangena.

"These funds could have been used for procuring essential equipment and infrastructure or towards other essential services, such as maintenance work and repair."

Mangena said criminals targeted street lights for their valuable components, which were often used in establishing illegal electricity connections.

These components include luminaire components used to bypass legal meters and steal electricity, aerial bundle cables which are durable, and accessible cables frequently used by syndicates in informal settlements to illegally connect homes and taverns to the power grid, creating what is called a "parallel electricity distribution enterprise".

"This system undermines the utility's authority and often involves criminals charging residents a monthly fee for stolen electricity."

Beyond illegal connections, the stolen components themselves are valuable commodities in the black market or scrapyards, as they are easy to steal and sell for a significant profit.

City Power said it is investing in the off-grid solar-high mast public lighting which will improve visibility and safety across the streets of Joburg.

"This alternative solution will assist with providing lighting during load shedding or prolonged power cuts, and this will also apply in non-City Power supply areas such as Soweto, thus improving safety and further reducing technical and nontechnical losses," he said.

Mangena said although City Power fixes damaged street lights when reported or identified, the high demand to repair and replace damaged street lights comes with a hefty cost with millions spent each year to replace stolen or damaged street lights, often only for the lights to be targeted again shortly after.

"City Power is committed to safeguarding and protecting the electricity network infrastructure against various crime risks, but the utility cannot do this alone," he said.

"For that reason, the utility has developed and is implementing an infrastructure security plan that incorporates working with the various communities and tactical security operations intending to drastically reduce and prevent cable theft and vandalism of the electricity infrastructure."

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