HomeOpinion & AnalysisCriminality isn’t the only way to see electricity theft

Criminality isn’t the only way to see electricity theft

By Ellen Fungisai Chipango

Electricity theft is a global challenge and Zimbabwe is not spared. The country has lost up to 1 000km of power lines due to cable theft.

The official explanation is that this is driven by organised crime with some accomplices being parastatal employees. Politicians say theft and vandalism of electricity infrastructure is politically motivated to derail government economic endeavours. It says such criminal activities result in of blackouts, rising energy costs and lost taxes.

I conducted research to illuminate what policy options are enabled, constrained or made invisible by the way electricity theft is spoken about in Zimbabwe. I found that this discourse conceals the real cause of electricity scarcity in the country.

From the data, it emerged that electricity theft in Zimbabwe illustrates the political-economic context. The way the political elite explains it is politically convenient.

In their explanation, lack of access to electricity doesn’t point to inadequacies in the country’s energy policy nor political economy. Rather, it’s portrayed as simple criminality. It puts the blame on others, instead of the government.

For policymakers, the problem is with the perpetrators and can only be resolved if citizens changed “their culture” of damaging electricity infrastructure.

Understanding this is useful to inform energy policy and practice so that Zimbabweans get reliable and affordable electricity supply. The choice of explanatory causes determines what practical actions may be taken to alleviate electricity scarcity.

The research

My study focused on discourses about the causes of electricity scarcity in the country. Electricity theft emerged as one of the dominant explanations. I analysed how policymakers explained it and how their explanation enabled certain policy options while constraining or masking others. It emerged that there was ambiguity even among the political elite on why electricity theft is rampant.

Electricity theft comes in various forms. These include fraud through tampering with meters, stealing via illegal connections, copper wire and transformer oil theft, unpaid bills and buying and selling of illegal prepaid vouchers.

Politicians and service providers bemoan the loss that the utility suffers as a result of these activities. The dominant narrative is that without electricity theft, the power utility would be able to deliver services as expected.

When the problem is understood this way, the solutions include:

  • Replacing vandalised infrastructure;
  • Using technologies such as drones to monitor the infrastructure; and
  • Prepaid metering:

Electricity theft in Zimbabwe attracts a punishment of not less than 10 years in prison. This sentence is applicable to theft in the form of tampering with apparatus of generating, transmitting, distributing or supplying electricity with the result that any supply of electricity is cut off or interrupted.

When policymakers confine electricity scarcity to a few factors like theft and vandalism, to be solved with technology and stiffer penalties, they are oversimplifying. They are missing other factors that contribute to electricity theft.

This approach appeals to politicians because it requires them to do basically nothing. It removes electricity theft from the political realm and recasts it as criminality.

A crime of poverty

But there is another perspective. When asked why there was a high rate of electricity theft, a key informant — an elite respondent in my study — observed that:

“This is caused by economic hardships. If I have the money, why would I want to go the illegal route? I would just pay and get my electricity genuinely. Therefore, it is not out of perversity, but out of necessity. There is a lot of unemployment.”

“Another informant elaborated:  People here are poor… Not that they just want to commit crimes, but they are doing it out of necessity.”

My research showed that inequality in its various forms is the chief contributory factor to electricity theft. It’s a crime of poverty.

Illegal connections are rampant in low-income suburbs and are sometimes associated with power utility workers.

When the political-economic system doesn’t benefit a group of people, they feel alienated and find ways to claim what they need to live a decent life. Whereas some powerful entities such as mining companies can pay for electricity in US dollars, most Zimbabweans cannot.

The World Bank observed that the Zimbabwean economic situation has been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. It estimated that the number of extremely poor people reached 7,9 million in 2020 — almost 49% of the population. And nearly 500 000 households have at least one member who lost their job in 2020.

Benefiting from crisis

Electricity theft committed by the poor is easily understood. But it’s also committed by the economically and politically powerful, especially in the form of unpaid bills.

This is what happens in State-owned enterprises when the elite use political power to their advantage. The amounts are huge compared to the illegal connections by the poor for subsistence.

Because of inequality, this group tends to benefit from the crisis. Owing to rampant electricity theft, there is a need for surveillance machinery to monitor the infrastructure, and this is procured through the tender system. Tenders are not for the economically weak and are not free from corruption.

Inflation is another factor in theft. Inflation in Zimbabwe is driven by a lack of confidence in the country’s economic policies.

In 2020, the Zimbabwe Energy Regulatory Authority approved a 50% tariff increase request by the power utility. Consumers’ salaries and wages have been eroded by inflation and they rarely get an increment in line with inflation rate. This mismatch between the economic system and the utility needs of the poor perpetuates inequality, which triggers illegal connections.

The illegal connections can arguably be considered a way in which to access rights, rather than a crime.

Energy policy stokes inequality

The question is whether the existing national policies are sufficient to deliver energy as a social good rather than a commercial good. The introduction of prepaid metering shows how commercial interests tend to prevail. The first 50kWh of electricity bought in a calendar month are cheaper than subsequent purchases. Many poor people cannot afford the higher-priced electricity. Too often these neo-liberal remedies are considered effective in revenue generation, but in reality they perpetuate inequality.

It is not the ordinary person (who consumes less than 350kW per month) who owes the power utility thousands of dollars, but the well-to-do who run their pool pumps. The most affected by the prepaid metering system are the poor who are forced to forgo power when the cannot afford it.

Electricity theft should not be over-simplified as mere criminal activity. It’s primarily a political, economic and ethical issue. To curb this problem, criminality and inequality must be addressed simultaneously.

Without this appreciation, policy options are skewed towards fighting electricity theft, while maintaining the status quo on inequality. The result is a vicious cycle.

Energy policy stokes inequality

The question is whether the existing national policies are sufficient to deliver energy as a social good rather than a commercial good. The introduction of prepaid metering shows how commercial interests tend to prevail. The first 50kWh of electricity bought in a calendar month are cheaper than subsequent purchases. Many poor people cannot afford the higher-priced electricity. Too often these neo-liberal remedies are considered effective in revenue generation, but in reality they perpetuate inequality.

It is not the ordinary person (who consumes less than 350kW per month) who owes the power utility thousands of dollars, but the well-to-do who run their pool pumps. The most affected by the prepaid metering system are the poor who are forced to forgo power when the cannot afford it.

Electricity theft should not be over-simplified as mere criminal activity. It’s primarily a political, economic and ethical issue. To curb this problem, criminality and inequality must be addressed simultaneously.

Without this appreciation, policy options are skewed towards fighting electricity theft, while maintaining the status quo on inequality. The result is a vicious cycle.

  • Ellen Fungisai Chipango is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa

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