One of the most influential fathers of electricity generation in Africa died in the early hours of July 12 aged 90.
Ian McRae, a consummate public servant was born in Germiston, Johannesburg, on September 24 1929 . He joined Eskom, South Africa’s national power generator and the biggest generator of electricity in Africa, as an apprentice fitter and turner in 1947.
McRae qualified with a degree in mechanical engineering and worked his way up to the top of the company in nearly half a century of service laying down the bedrock of the power supply that South African business took for granted for decades. He oversaw the construction of the country’s big six coal-fired power stations, in the 1970s: Kriel, Matla, Duvha, Tutuka, Lethabo, Mathimba, Kendal and Majuba; as well as the country’s three hydro-electric stations: Gariep, Vanderkloof and Cahora Bassa, plus South Africa’s nuclear plant at Koeberg, near Cape Town. McRae was head of operations from 1977 to 1980, head of engineering from 1980 to 1984 and chief executive from 1985 until his retirement in 1994.
Sadly, McRae, a gregarious man-of-the-people, spent his last four months isolated in a home in Edenvale in Johannesburg because of the COVID-19 lockdown. McRae’s remarkable courage came through in his meetings with the ANC in 1988, his promotion of equal opportunity during the height of the apartheid era, and his legendary “electricity-for-all” electrification campaign. These initiatives helped Eskom pre-empt and adapt to the social changes of the 1990s and on retirement McRae left the power generator in good order producing a plentiful supply of some of the cheapest electricity in the world; power that gave birth to a large smelting industry in South Africa. He was also an energetic member of the World Energy Council and the World Association of Nuclear Operators.
“There is no doubt that his integrity, credibility, drive, inherent humility and care for people, also profoundly helped to motivate Eskom staff during many difficult times. In addition, his tenacity of purpose and commitment as a team player enabled Eskom to achieve its strategic goals in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and to survive unscathed through the political transition period of South Africa,” says writer Peter Adams, a former Eskom spokesman, who ghost-wrote a biography of the man.
“A key theme of the book is leadership, and in particular the kind of leadership McRae practiced at Eskom during its phases of both growth and then downsizing. This was essentially one of empowering people within a framework of a clear and inspiring vision. The book is also about McRae the man – his strength and weaknesses, his sense of serving others and Eskom. This is thus the story of a person who has served his fellow man, his company and his country with distinction and humility, using his God-given skills of leadership. In several places in the book, Dr. McRae mentions how being a good mentor is one of the attributes of the outstanding leader. Having benefited himself from good mentorship, Dr. McRae helped to establish the strong culture of mentorship that exists in Eskom today.”
McRae’s wife Jess predeceased him last year, his daughter Heather, died in 2018. His son, Donald, who has written books on boxing and South African rugby, survives him and is a journalist living in London.