• South Africa adopted the SANS 164-1 plug and socket-outlet from the British in the 1950s.
  • According to an SABS spokesperson, the three-pronged plug system was notoriously dangerous and responsible for "countless" fires and electrocutions.
  • The much safer SANS 164-2 is now compulsory.

This year, South Africa adopted a new compulsory plug and socket system – the SANS 164-2. This is what it looks like:

It replaces one of the worst electricity systems in the world – the SANS 164-1 three-pronged round-pin plug:

The SANS 164-1 plug and socket-outlet were notoriously dangerous, says Bjørn Buyst, head of marketing at the South African Bureau of Standards.

Deaths by electrocution are categorised as accidental, and so statistics on deaths due to plugs are scarce. But in a 2009 study, Ryan Blumenthal of the Department of Forensic Medicine at the University of Pretoria, found an average of around 30 deaths a year by low-voltage electrocution – just in Gauteng.

Just over 40% of the fatalities he identified over three years were in people younger than 25.* 

Here are the main problems with the old plug system:

The large, open socket holes - perfectly sized for baby and toddler fingers - proved lethal

“Kids like to fiddle with the pin holes of the three-pronged plug socket outlet as well as conductive objects; if they are not under supervision they can be electrocuted,” says Buyst.

The plug pins are often not insulated

While the plug pins should be half insulated to protect users from touching the conductive parts when inserting or pulling it from the socket-outlet, this was often not the case. "On the market, there are some of the three-pronged (SANS 164-1) plug with the pins that are not half insulated. They put end-users in danger of being electrocuted." 

Earthing problems

The earthing of these sockets has been shown to be unreliable after a few years of use.

Its switch system is treacherous

Unlike many other electricity systems across the world, the outlet also came with a switch, to turn the plug on and off. “Switches are dangerous,” says Buyst. They create the false impression of safety, when switched off.  

“(In fact), switches are only micro gap devices and only switch off one live conductor. The neutral can also become live. Switching off a switch and working on the appliance is ridiculous to say the least.”

“If you think you are going to protect your appliance by switching off the switch on a socket-outlet during a lightning storm you are wasting your time. The best way to protect against lightning is to remove the plug. That truly isolates the appliance from the supply.”

It was not compatible with any other plugs 

South Africa was one of the only countries that used the large three-pronged plug. (While India also accommodated three-pronged plugs, theirs have different dimensions.) 

The fact that the SANS 164-1 was not compatible with any other plugs in the world created additional safety problems.

“South Africans had to purchase those hideous adaptors and plugs, which in themselves are very dangerous,” says Buyst.

So, how did we end up with such a lethal plug system?

Before the 1940s, a two-pin unearthed plug was used in South Africa. During the war years, South Africa started to adopt the 15amp three-pronged plug with round pins from the United Kingdom.

It became the norm in the 1950s as South Africa introduced compulsory earthing. But the Brits quickly abandoned the three-pronged rounded pin plugs in favour of the 13amp double flat-pin plugs.

South Africa stuck to the three-pronged plugs, however. This was partly due to the fact that American light switches were by then adopted here, which only fitted into what became known as 2x4 and 4x4 boxes – which were also the right size for the big British sockets, says Buyst.

This system was maintained for decades, until five years ago, when the SABS switched to the SANS 164-2. It became compulsory for all new installations from January this year.

“The decision has been made for the consumer’s safety,” says Buyst.

The new plug system is much safer. For starters, the socket outlets have shutters that will only open if two live pins are inserted simultaneously. 

While European two-pin plugs can be used with the new system, South Africa is sticking to three pins.

The third pin is an earth pin design to protect the users from electric shock, Isaac Malapela, business specialist at National Regulator for Compulsory Specification, told Business Insider SA. The NRCS regulates the requirements for electrical products. Two-pin European-style plugs are still allowed in South Africa for products that do not require to be earthed.

This article was updated to include statistics on electrocution.

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