A minimum of 5% of all power and auxiliary transformers across South Africa collected by ArmCoil for repair have been subjected to vandalism. The balance is due to various forms of poor maintenance, negligence and abusive use, which then result in premature or unplanned failure.

As such, the costs of repair or replacement of transformers can easily accumulate into large, unplanned financial losses, which include having to replace the transformer, associated equipment and/or infrastructure.

Skilled maintenance offers protection

Outages, whether unplanned or planned, is a ‘hot topic’ in boardrooms and at dinner tables across the country, where utility customers are questioning whether these outages are due to the possibility that maintenance managers and engineers do not satisfy the requirements of the job description status quo in this specialised field.

If this is the case, it is irresponsible for business owners, utility executives and highly qualified industry professionals to be dismissive of the importance of maintaining critical equipment. There is the likelihood that these professionals are fully aware of this, but that responsibility for maintenance is delegated to less qualified employees.

Furthermore, it is a big decision to shut down a plant for annual maintenance without precisely planning priorities and tasks, especially when it comes to electrical equipment. This is further complicated, often with disastrous outcomes, when the skills requirements are not being met.

In South Africa, which has a host of old infrastructure in need of modernisation, old technology needs to be maintained more regularly until suitable options are considered for upgrading. Bear in mind that maintenance plans will still be required once new technology is installed to keep the equipment optimised.

The threat of vandalism and theft

Maintenance challenges are not the only issue affecting assets. Vandalism of transformers and substations is a specialised crime, mainly operated through syndicates – there are no patterns to this crime, in my opinion. It is a meticulously well-planned and efficient crime, which in many cases includes the custodians of those employed to manage, maintain and protect this infrastructure.

This is evident in arrests being made around the country involving utility and parastatal employees through a special South African Police (SAP) task team in collaboration with Eskom. This task force must be congratulated on its successful efforts to date. Well done!

Why these assets are targeted

Syndicates target these assets as they have a lucrative cash incentive for the criminals, namely: Transformer oil sold as cooking oil for which there exists a large market. It is inadvisable to assume that only small vendors use this oil for cooking. If formal research were undertaken, there would be evidence to substantiate the shocking truth of fried chicken and chip businesses that unknowingly or wittingly support this vandalism and theft.

In the form of fuel, whereby the stolen transformer oil is mixed into fuels such as diesel. Diesel is an expensive fuel, which, when diluted with oil, can be sold more profitably. A formal research paper could question whether syndicates manage to sell stolen oil to franchised businesses and agribusiness at a fraction of the cost they normally pay for diesel.

Remedies and cosmetics: it has been documented that the stolen oil is used for open wounds in rural areas. The oil has also been used to increase the volume of well-known cosmetics available all over the country; syndicates cash in on this lucrative trade.

Export: the stolen transformer oil is in high demand among southern African countries, such as Zimbabwe, Zambia and Mozambique. In this instance, border officials are most probably involved in assisting the syndicates to move the product across the borders.

Copper is bought for approximately ZAR25-65 per/kg ($1.75-4.54) by local scrap metal yards. This means transformer copper stolen from a small unit can be sold for approximately R20,000 ($1,396) and a medium sized unit could attract a value of ZAR200,000 ($13,956). This is a very good return for one night’s work of thieving!

This is in part the reason why the country still experiences a substantial number of outages. However, these occurrences have lessened in the face of increased awareness of this crime and the relentless efforts of Eskom, SAP and the private sector. ESI.


Morné Bosch is the general manager for sales and marketing at ArmCoil. With over five years’ experience in the transformer industry, Morné is passionate about local manufacturing, skills development, job creation and above all providing a reputable service.