Hendrik van der Bijl is one of the greatest South Africans who contributed tremendously by starting Eskom, Iscor, and the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC).
Van der Bijl was born in Pretoria on 23 November 1887 and matriculated from Boy’s High School in Franschhoek in 1904.
He attended Stellenbosch University, where he graduated with distinctions in Physics, Mathematics and Chemistry.
Van der Bijl left South Africa in 1908 to complete a PhD in physics in Germany. After completing his doctoral studies, he was appointed assistant in physics at the Königlich Sächsische Technische Hochschule in Dresden.
He later moved to New York, where he worked for Western Electric, which would become part of the Bell Telephone Company.
In 1919, Van der Bijl wrote a paper on scientific research and industrial development and related this to the development of secondary industries in South Africa.
This paper caught the attention of Prime Minister Jan Smuts, who asked him to return to South Africa and become a scientific and industrial advisor in the Department of Mines and Industries.
Van der Bijl took up Smuts’ offer and enjoyed exceptional powers. He reported directly to Smuts.
With the backing of Smuts, he founded the Electricity Supply Commission (ESCOM) in March 1923 to provide the country with electricity. Today, it is known as Eskom.
At inception, it was a non-profit public utility company with Van der Bijl as chairman.
“There lies before the Electricity Supply Commission a great task and a great opportunity. It will be our endeavour to play our part not as those who follow where others lead, but as pioneers,” van der Bijl said.
“We will foresee the needs of a country fast developing and, by wise anticipation, be ever ready to provide power without profit, wherever it may be required.”
The project’s success strengthened his vision of an industrialised South Africa, and he dedicated his time to this endeavour.
Van der Bijl saw that the two pillars on which industry would be built were:
- Adequate and economical supplies of electricity.
- The production of adequate and economical steel.
With the electricity supply growth under the Electricity Supply Commission, he persuaded the government to create a second public utility company to produce steel.
In 1925, he founded and headed a new company known as the Iron and Steel Corporation (Iscor), which, like the power utility, prospered under his leadership.
He later saw the need to support smaller private enterprises, and in 1940 he successfully lobbied the state to create the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC).
The IDC provided capital to promising enterprises, and he served as chairman during the first three years.
He also helped to make South Africa more self-sufficient and less reliant on imported goods during World War II.
As Director General of War Supplies, Van der Bijl mobilised South Africa’s limited industrial resources to produce guns, bombs, armoured cars, precision instruments, military explosives and ammunition.
Other industries, like weaving, clothing, leatherware, and canned foods, also received a boost. They developed rapidly to limit the country’s dependence on imported supplies.
Van der Bijl’s impact on South Africa is still felt 74 years after his death in 1948.
Eskom became one of the best power utilities in the world, and despite the destruction over the last two decades, it remains the largest power producer in South Africa.
Iscor, which is now known as ArcelorMittal South Africa, is the largest steel producer in sub-Saharan Africa.
The IDC is still operational today and continues to promote economic growth and industrial development by funding high-impact projects.