The official explanation is that this is driven by organised crime with some accomplices coming from government departments. Politicians say theft and the vandalism of electricity infrastructure is politically motivated to derail the government’s economic endeavours. This would be the effect 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 explain it is politically convenient. In their explanation, the lack of electricity access 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 policy makers, the problem is with the perpetrators and would be solved if citizens changed “their culture” of damaging electricity infrastructure.
Understanding this is useful to inform energy policy and practice so that Zimbabweans get a reliable and affordable electricity supply. The choice of explanatory causes determines what practical actions may be taken to alleviate electricity scarcity.
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 policy makers 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 meter tampering, stealing via illegal connections, copper wire and transformer oil theft, unpaid bills and buying and selling of illegal prepaid vouchers. Politicians and service providers decry 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.
Electricity theft in Zimbabwe attracts a punishment of not less than 10 years in prison. This sentence is applicable for 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 policy makers reduce electricity scarcity to a few factors like theft and vandalism, to be solved with technology and stiffer penalties, they’re oversimplifying. They’re 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’s 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 freely. 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 contributing factor to electricity theft. It’s a crime of poverty.
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’s 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 to state-owned enterprises when the elite use their political power for their own ends. 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’s a need for surveillance machinery to monitor the infrastructure, and this is procured through the tendering system. Tenders aren’t for the economically weak and aren’t 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 by the power utility. Consumers’ salaries and wages are also eroded by inflation and they rarely get an increment in line with the inflation rate.
This mismatch between the economic system and the utility needs of the poor perpetuates inequality, which triggers illegal connections. They can arguably be considered a way 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 win. The first 50kWh of electricity bought in a calendar month are cheaper than subsequent purchases. Many poor people cannot afford this higher-priced electricity. Too often these neoliberal remedies are considered effective in revenue generation, but in reality they perpetuate inequality.
It isn’t 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 disconnect when they can’t afford power.
Electricity theft can’t be simplified as a criminal activity only. It’s primarily a political, economic and ethical issue. To curb this problem, criminality and inequality must be addressed together.
Without this appreciation, policy options are skewed towards fighting electricity theft, while maintaining the status quo on inequality. The result is a vicious cycle.