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South Africa cracks down on dirty diesel sales

The national government is cracking down on petrol stations selling dirty diesel in South Africa following a scandal at the start of the year where dozens of stations were found selling tainted fuel mixed with paraffin.

According to the Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy, Gwede Mantashe, the government will be conducting more random tests at various fuel stops around the country to assess the quality of their diesel and combat the contamination process.

Combatting dodgy diesel sales

In January 2024, it was revealed that at least 70 different fuel stations around the country had been caught selling diesel diluted with illuminating paraffin, following a 38% increase in large-scale fuel consumers submitting diesel to the DMRE for lab tests.

It was discovered that several service stations were engaged in diesel adulteration – a term that refers to mixing a foreign substance (paraffin) with a fuel (diesel).

Mantashe noted that the number of reported cases of contaminated diesel is a growing problem, not just in South Africa but around the world as individuals attempt to profit from the tax differential between paraffin and diesel.

Paraffin is not subjected to the same taxes and levies that apply to fuels, and unlike petrol, the price of diesel is unregulated, allowing station owners to set their own retail margins.

This has led to station owners mixing the much cheaper paraffin into the diesel that they sell to increase its volume while keeping the same price as unadulterated diesel, allowing them to make a higher profit while the customer is unaware of the dilution.

They may also use the cost-savings to advertise their fuel at a lower price than their competitors and lure in unsuspecting customers.

To combat this, the DMRE is extending its fuel testing at more service stations to establish the full extent of the problem with South Africa’s fuel quality.

Following the last investigation, the most high-risk provinces identified include Limpopo, North West, and Kwa-Zulu Natal, though evidence of diesel adulteration was found in all nine provinces.

“The random testing will be carried out through collaboration/ partnerships with government entities that share the same mandate to enforce fuel quality compliance,” said Mantashe.

“The Department is increasing its collaboration with the South African Revenue Services and is exploring cooperation with the National Consumer Commission to further punish offenders and protect consumers.”

Dirty diesel is a big problem for motorists and carmakers

Dirty diesel can have severe consequences for your engine, as it does not provide adequate lubrication and lacks the additives included in fuel that modern engines are designed to run on.

The lack of lubrication means the combustion process has much worse long-term wear and tear on the engine, and paraffin has a lower flashpoint than diesel which can lead to engine knocking – a phenomenon when fuel burns unevenly in a system which can cause further damage.

The poor quality of the fuel is magnified by modern car engines that are designed to reduce emissions and run on cleaner propellants, which has created a problem for carmakers like Ford, Toyota, and VW, who are hesitant to bring new models to South Africa as a result.

For the same reason, manufacturers will generally not cover engine damage relating to poor fuel in their warranties, as the car was not designed to run on bad fuel.

Motorists are advised to pay careful attention to the price of diesel when visiting a service station, as a location selling the liquid at a considerably lower rate than its competitors is cause for suspicion.

In the last investigation, most of the businesses identified to be selling tainted fuel were independent dealers and newer brands, some of which didn’t even have a licence to trade fuel, according to the DMRE.

None of the guilty stations were named, however, as the diesel practice is classified as a tax offense and the businesses are therefore unable to be identified until legal proceedings are complete, though they are also not allowed to conduct any further operations.

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