By Ebi Kesiena
South African authorities announced on Friday that it completed raids across five provinces to bust a coal smuggling syndicate which the government claims stole more than $26 million in coal, damaged a state-owned power plant, and contributed to the electricity crisis.
A criminal gang diverted trucks carrying high-grade coal to power stations, stealing the coal to sell, and replacing it with sub-standard ore, the country’s tax and revenue agency said in a statement.
According to the authorities, the substandard coal has caused crippling damage to the country’s power plants.
National police spokesperson Brig. Athlenda Mathe explained that the South African Revenue Service worked with other law enforcement agencies to carry out search and seizure operations in Gauteng, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal, Free State and Limpopo provinces.
Africa’s most advanced economy is in the midst of a power crisis that has resulted in scheduled rolling blackouts because its coal-fired stations are not generating enough electricity for the country’s 62 million people.
The state-owned power utility, Eskom, produces about 95 percent of South Africa’s electricity.
The blackouts have been largely blamed on years of corruption and mismanagement at Eskom, though authorities also have said that suspected organized crime syndicates have been operating for years around Eskom’s power station supply chains.
Suspects involved in the syndicate include former Eskom employees, the tax agency said.
The switching of coal destined for state-owned plants has worsened the country’s electricity crisis, it said.
“The low-grade coal damages the infrastructure at the Eskom power stations, which is a major factor in crippling the power utility’s ability to generate electricity for the South African grid,” it said.
South Africa experienced its worst blackouts ever at the start of the year when homes and businesses went without electricity for more than eight hours a day. The electricity is usually cut off in two-hour blocks spread out over the day. The cuts have eased in recent weeks, but energy analysts have said the blackouts will last until at least the end of 2024.
The electricity crisis has badly affected South Africa’s economy, which is expected to grow by less than 1% this year.
It has also been politically problematic for the ruling African National Congress party, which has been in government since the end of apartheid in 1994 and has been largely blamed for the problems at Eskom and other state-owned entities.
South Africa has national elections next year when the power crisis is expected to be a key issue for voters.