Skip to navigationSkip to content

South Africa’s unusual electrical plugs and sockets are headed for retirement

Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko
Electricity pylons in Orlando, Soweto township, South Africa
Published Last updated

If you’ve ever traveled to South Africa and tried to use your multi-country adapter to recharge your phone or laptop, you may have been surprised that your adapter could not fit into the country’s unique sockets.

South Africa is now  putting the electrical plugs and sockets the nation has relied on for generations on the road to retirement. The plugs, which feature three large pins configured in a triangle, are giving way to a compact hexagonal three-pin design, with sockets following suit.

The new plug and socket, which is based on the latest international standard, accommodates the European-type two-pin plugs on cellphone chargers and small appliances, as well as a two-pin plug based on a German design that comes attached to most power tools imported into the country.

Though South Africa has required buildings built since 2018 to have so-called 164-2 type sockets (the number designates the national standard for the new plug and socket type), the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) recently updated the standard to introduce warnings on adapters not permitted to be plugged into one another in order to avoid straining the socket.

Image courtesy South African Bureau of Standards

A proliferation of smartphones, tablets, and small appliances that rely on the two-pin European plug, combined with the need by South Africans to plug their devices into outlets designed for the traditional large-pin plugs (a so-called 164-1 type) found in millions of homes and offices nationwide, fuels a reliance on adapters that raises the risk of short circuiting, fire, and damage to devices.

“With the array of appliances and devices that have become commonplace in today’s world, it is critical to ensure that the plugs and sockets are also changing to accommodate the more compact designs of plugs,” Jodi Scholtz, lead administrator of SABS, said in a statement that elaborates on the update.

Image courtesy South African Bureau of Standards
Old vs New

The ubiquity of 164-1 type sockets together with a deluge of two-pin devices results in the use of “adapters-on-adapters” in sockets across South Africa and poses a danger to consumers, she explained.

Adapter fatigue

With its ability to accommodate the European-style plugs, the new South African socket will cut down on the number of adapters that people need to power their devices. Unlike its European cousin, the new South African plug adds a third pin to satisfy a national mandate that sockets have protection for earth leakage, which reduces the risk of shock by detecting stray voltage.

“The new standard will not eliminate the use of adaptors, however it will reduce the need and enable safer use of them,” Scholtz told Quartz Africa. “Most foreign visitors will still need to use their adaptors to have devices work, and sockets will be able to accommodate the old type of plugs.”

Image courtesy South African Bureau of Standards
South Africa’s updated wall socket

The 164-2 plug and socket incorporate safety by design. A pocket in the socket prevents consumers from touching a live pin during insertion. To prevent adapter plugs and switches on the surface of sockets from hindering each other, the new standard creates clearance between them and allows adapters to be plugged in fully. The socket contains a safety shutter that requires insertion of at least two pins to open.

The new standard solidifies a move by South Africa away from the British standards on which South Africa’s 164-1 type plug and socket are based. The countries’ standards began to diverge in the 1960s, when the U.K. moved to a flat-pin plug and South Africa declined to follow. India, which also modeled its standards on the British, uses a three-pin plug that resembles South Africa’s 164-1, but the pins are much smaller.

The shift now underway in South Africa notwithstanding, the millions of 164-1 type plugs in use throughout the country will be sticking around. Sockets will continue to accommodate them, particularly in kitchens, where the plugs come attached to most appliances.

“Eventually, consumers will get tired of having all these adapters,” predicts Gianfranco Campetti, an electrical engineer and member of the SABS working group that developed the new standard. “This is not a 90-minute game. It’s going to take time.”

Sign up to the Quartz Africa Weekly Brief here for news and analysis on African business, tech, and innovation in your inbox

🌍 Keep up with developments and emerging industries in Africa.

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.