Eskom founder Hendrik van der Bijl’s lesson to the government

Political analyst Prince Mashele said South Africa doesn’t need an electricity minister to end load-shedding. Instead, we need brilliant engineers like Eskom founder Hendrik van der Bijl to fix the power utility.

Speaking to Dr Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, Mashele said South Africa and its government could learn much from the country’s electricity history.

In the early 1900s, only a few economically active areas in South Africa had electricity, and they were served by a private company called the Victoria Falls Power Company.

The government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Jan Smuts, decided to create an entity which would provide power to the whole country.

Mashele said that when Eskom was created, the politicians of the time understood that you don’t want a politician to run such a power company. You needed engineers and scientists.

Smuts, therefore, contacted the brilliant engineer Hendrik van der Bijl, who completed a PhD in physics in Germany and worked at Western Electric in New York.

He convinced Van der Bijl to return to South Africa to establish the Electricity Supply Commission (ESCOM) in 1923, providing electricity to the whole country.

Van der Bijl enjoyed exceptional powers and reported directly to Smuts. He called his engineering friends and colleagues worldwide to join him in creating the new power company.

Throughout his tenure as ESCOM chairman, the power utility did not experience any problems. It also never needed money and paid back the loan from the government to set up the company.

ESCOM’s name later changed to Eskom, but its focus on excellence remained because the power utility continued to be run by experts.

By 1990, Eskom supplied more than half of the electricity in Africa, and it won the Power Company of the Year at the Global Energy Awards in 2001.

Prince Mashele

Things started to deteriorate under the ANC government because of cadre deployment and policies like BEE and affirmative action.

In the late nineties, Eskom’s board and management warned the government that the country would face blackouts unless it invested in additional generation capacity.

“The ANC government did nothing. They did not invest in Eskom’s generation capacity. That is why we experience load-shedding,” he said.

Over the last 14 years, Eskom’s financial and operational performance plummeted, and it is now selling less electricity than it did in 2008.

Eskom is in a dismal state – riddled with fraud and corruption and suffering from a lack of engineering and technical skills.

The ruling party and President Cyril Ramaphosa’s solution to Eskom’s problems was appointing a new electricity minister.

Mashele slated this decision, saying it was an attempt by Ramaphosa and the ANC government to fool South Africans.

“We don’t need a minister of electricity to get out of this mess. We need engineers who must fix Eskom,” Mashele said.

Van der Bijl and his successors showed that providing reliable and affordable electricity across South Africa was possible using the right team of skilled engineers.

The government, in turn, showed what happens when there is political interference and when you appoint politically connected individuals instead of the best person for the job.


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