Dr Ian McRae, Eskom’s first CEO and a pioneer in the electricity generation industry in South Africa for almost half a century, died on 12 July 2020 at the age of 90. Dr Ian McRae will be remembered for many things by those who knew him, but perhaps by the country at large, he will be best remembered as the man who dreamed of making universal access to electricity a reality.
His slogan “Electricity for all” was no empty promise. He foresaw, and worked hard to achieve, an extensive electricity grid which would reach into every corner of South Africa. It was his vision that everyone, at home, at work, or at school should have access to a low-cost, reliable, safe supply of electricity.
Despite some political resistance regarding the added costs the project would incur, McRae pressed on. At the time, only about 40% of the population of South Africa had access to electricity. To achieve the goal of universal access, the utility needed to serve more customers directly. That meant installing more infrastructure and making more direct connections. The vision of universal access continues to this day.
He shared some of his personal memories in his book The test of leadership which was published in March 2006.
Ian McRae was born and grew up in Germiston on the East Rand. He matriculated from the local high school and went to work at the utility’s Rosherville site which is also in Germiston. He joined the power utility, which was known at the time as the Electricity Supply Commission (Escom), as an apprentice fitter-and-turner in 1947. Although he always wanted to be more than an artisan, he says he never envisaged himself being part of Eskom’s incredible expansion plans for the next 47 years. When he retired, he was the CEO of the power utility.
He served as a pupil engineer at Rosherville and Taaibos power stations from 1955, after obtaining a BSc degree in mechanical engineering from the University of the Witwatersrand in 1953. He worked at Highveld and Komati power stations before taking on the responsibility for generation operations at the utility’s head office. In 1985, McRae was appointed chief executive and chairman of the organisation’s board of management.
When he retired from Eskom in 1994, he was appointed chairman of the National Electricity Regulator (NER), chairman of the Southern African Development through Electricity (SAD-ELEC), chairman of Rotek Industries and honorary vice-president of the South African National Energy Association (SANEA). He was also the vice-chairman of the World Energy Council’s administrative committee.
Ian McRae received many awards during his service to Eskom, amongst these (to mention but a few) are the Engineering Newsmaker of the Year Award in 1988, an Honorary Doctorate in Engineering from the University of the Witwatersrand in 1989, the Business Statesman of the Year Award from the Harvard Business School Club of South Africa in 1991 and in 1993, the coveted Order for Meritorious Service Gold (OMSG), from the State President. These accolades were granted for the major role that he played in the development of improved living standards and upliftment of the people of South and Southern Africa.
Ian McRae’s nephew, Brian Statham, adds the following comments to this obituary:
“But what of the man behind these achievements? Ian was a keen sportsman. As a young man he loved to spend weekends yachting on Germiston Lake and he was also a very proficient footballer, playing as an amateur for Germiston Callies in what was then the top division. Later he took to lawn bowls and played enthusiastically until late in life.
“For me, Ian displayed “servant-leadership”. He most certainly was a man of vision but, more importantly, he was a man of action. He set about turning his vision into reality and this combination of vision plus action is what made him so inspirational. Furthermore, he was not selective in the campaigns he embarked upon. While he was taking on the South African government with his “Electricity for all” project he was also scything through red tape to get further education for the son of his gardener. Big or small, they were all important.
“And if Ian was the general leading the charge, his wife, Jess, was his sergeant-major marshalling the troops. Diminutive in stature she made up for it with determination to rid the world of injustice and together Ian and Jess left a memorable legacy. Their daughter, Heather, died in 2018 and Jess followed her in 2019. They are survived by their son, Donald, an internationally acclaimed sports journalist.
“We have lost a great leader, a mentor, and a friend.”