Obituary: Ian McRae, the founding father of electricity for all

Obituary: Ian McRae, the founding father of electricity for all

2020-07-13 11:50:00 PM

Obituary: Ian McRae, the founding father of electricity for all

Former Eskom CEO was an inspirational leader who envisioned a subcontinental grid that would bring electricity to Africa

Jac Messerschmidt and George LindequeCurrent Eskom CEO André de Ruyter and former Eskom CEO Ian McRae. Picture: GEORGE LINDEQUEThe expressive eyebrows that underline the towering forehead were perhaps sparser than 30 years ago, but the piercing blue eyes made his injunctions imperative when Ian McRae met his recent successor earlier this year.

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Though his large frame showed the inevitable ravages of age, there was nothing small about Ian Campbell McRae, erstwhile CEO of Eskom (1985-1995) and then founding chair of what is today Nersa, the energy regulator of SA, passing on his vision to current CEO André de Ruyter

His body passed away early on Sunday July 12, but the spirit of this founding father of electricity for all and the Southern African grid, initiated by one of the most admired and well-run utilities in the world at the time, lives on.For the job is not yet done, McRae insisted ever since he officially “retired” two decades ago.

There is more work to be done to rebuild Eskom, complete electrification and to expand the electricity grid further into Africa. The reform of the whole electricity industry is still on the waiting list, but he was confident that the will to do the things that have fallen by the wayside has not waned.

As McRae passed on his legacy in discussion with De Ruyter, he stressed these points again. On learning of his passing, De Ruyter said: “All of us at Eskom were saddened at hearing of the passing of Dr Ian”.“He was a true giant in the SA energy industry, and transformed Eskom with his inspirational leadership. Personally I was humbled to have met him soon after I stepped into the role of CEO, and personally experienced his passion for Eskom, and his keen interest in the business that he built,” De Ruyter said.

It was true that Ian McRae could inspire people to do the impossible. He took Eskom to incredible heights and he also left us the road map to the mountain top. All we need to is to read it and follow it.As an Eskom veteran of almost 40 years when he took over as CEO in 1985, McRae set about strengthening the system and improving plant performance. Tirelessly, he, together with chair John Maree, travelled the length and breath of the country, inspiring thousands of employees, customers and suppliers with a vision for a new Eskom. It became an all but unstoppable “I&J Show”.

Through the following years of hard work and focus on the vision, the whole of Eskom became galvanised into turning vision into reality. The real price of electricity declined as the benefits of running a tight ship filtered through. Eskom won award after award for being the top organisation in the country and an industrial leader of global repute. McRae naturally shared in these honours and was awarded an honourable doctorate from his alma mater, Wits University.

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But he was not content with these salutary successes. There was more to his vision than running a top company. He realised the urgent need to bring electricity to all if the country was to prosper. It was a singularly unpopular notion, especially among the powers-that-be at the time. But it was compelling McRae believed — and he was proved right — that the provision of light and power changes lives, a force for good in the challenges that faced the nation.

McRae also championed his vision into Africa. Many friends as well as enemies were persuaded, cajoled, lured and seduced by the powerful dream of a subcontinental grid, truly bringing electricity to all across the continent. McRae, the diplomat, against overwhelming odds, and much opposition from home and abroad, eventually persuaded many leaders in the region to buy into the idea — and so built the first steps towards a Southern African grid.

After his retirement, McRae took no joy in finding his vision fraying perhaps, but never fading, as Eskom continued to build behemoths to charge cellphones in villages instead of championing more appropriate technologies attuned to changing customer needs. Urgent reforms of the electricity supply industry are still a final part of the dream to be achieved.

It is on McRae’s giant shoulders that future leaders will see his dreams and build on them an organisation truly fit for purpose; an industry that delivers electricity for all; and does so across a prosperous continent for the benefit of all its people. We, as a few of his friends and erstwhile colleagues at Eskom, salute and honour him.

McRae lost his dear wife, Jess, in 2019 and leaves his only son, Donald, a journalist and successful author of several books. Read more: Business Day »

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