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One Of The Influential Fathers Of Power In Africa Dies Aged 90

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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.

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Denis Goldberg – The Gentle Lion Of The Struggle

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Denis Goldberg; image by Motlabana Monnakgotla for FORBES AFRICA

Farewell one of Mandela’s last survivors of his band of brothers.

I once asked Denis Goldberg what he thought of one of his high-ranking former comrades taking R500,000 in bribes from a crook.

“What a cheapskate!” came back the reply faster than a gunslinger’s bullet. I expected more pious reply, not with Denis.

“He has sold out his job, his country, his beliefs, his politics and his morals – for half a million bucks?”

Denis said it with that deadpan look on his face. Believe me, he was dead serious and angry, but his expression dissolved into that famous smile of his that made you think we frail human beings all make mistakes.

That was Denis and his attitude in a nutshell – he was principled and far from enamoured, in later years, with all that was going on in the government that he fought to put in power and was never afraid to say so; and yet, he never forgot that we are all human and vulnerable, something that fueled his tireless charity work.

I first met Denis at his home near the crashing waves of Hout Bay, near Cape Town, the city where he was born and should have lived out his days as a comfortable engineer in the suburbs. Instead, he spent years training revolutionaries in the art of warfare and making bombs.

We got to know each other during the making of a three-hour documentary, Liliesleaf – The Untold Story, for CNBC Africa on the Rivonia trial, in 1963, where he faced the death penalty with Nelson Mandela. We kept in touch down the years with lunch, a phone call and the odd laugh about the absurdity of politics.

I shall never forget the warm, human story he told on that summer day back in 2009 about how he sneaked small squares of chocolate to a chained and emaciated Mandela, in short trousers, who police had dragged from prison to face sabotage charges.

“You don’t get sweeteners in prison,” said Goldberg with a smile.

Alongside Mandela, on that day, were the leading lights of the liberation movement: Walter Sisulu; Govan Mbeki; Ray Mhlaba; Andrew Mlangeni and Ahmed Kathrada. Only Mlangeni, who will be 95 in June, survives.  

The authorities hoped they would put them away forever. They nearly succeeded and certainly set back the liberation of South Africa by decades by incarcerating the leaders of the movement for life.

“’There was Mandela standing in the dock defiantly and forcing the judge to look him in the eye,” Goldberg said as if the hearing were yesterday at the Palace of Justice in Pretoria.

For some reason, Denis and I got on like a house on fire. He reminded me of my grandfathers – a hard man ready to fight for what was right, yet humane and compassionate with it.

The tough side of him came out in that interview. He told how the special branch officers used to taunt him across the courtroom, as the evidence was presented, by running their forefingers across their throats with a grin of death.

“I had to think about how to respond and in the end I did this back…” says Denis giving it the middle finger. Anyone who can give the finger to their captors in the shadow of death is tough enough.

Then, when he was relating the harrowing tale of his fractured relationship with his daughter, Hilary, came out the old soldier hide of granite.

It was a sorrowful tale. Denis’s daughter worshipped him from afar as a latter day Robin Hood in the 20 years he was in prison. When he was released in 1984, they were reunited in Israel. A few months later, the two fell out. It started when Hilary filtered the pile of hate mail from his daily post.

“I told her, Hilary, Hilly, you are trying to control me like they did in prison,” he said. 

It all blew up. An angry Hilary told her father he had never been around and was always away fighting the struggle, you could see the pain on Denis’s face.

“It took five years and a lot of counseling, but we reconciled. Unfortunately, shortly after that, she died.”

By this time, both the young cameraman and myself, I am not ashamed to say this, had cast off our professional masks and had tears rolling down our cheeks.

“What’s the matter with you guys?” shot back Goldberg in mock outrage.

“I thought journalists were supposed to be tough. I don’t know, the journalists of today!”

Then we all laughed, once again Denis had made people feel they would see the sun tomorrow.

His humour was legendary, as was his compassion. He once told me that he was handed three life sentences but was given a bulk discount and only served one. On the other side of the coin, he told me of the horror of lying in his cell listening to condemned men screaming as warders dragged them to the gallows. It was pure Denis that he learned the guitar so he could play a heartfelt musical tribute to the condemned.

Only Denis could have led the laughter in court when he and his comrades slipped the noose.

“Life and life is wonderful,” he called out when someone asked the verdict of the dock.  

Amid all the laughter, sound and fury of the life of Denis Goldberg, there is one cool winter’s afternoon that I will always remember him by. It was at Liliesleaf , in 2013, at the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the raid on Rivonia that led him to spending 20 years in prison.

It was a draining day for an 80-year-old. There were journalists asking questions and taking pictures everywhere. Denis was patient and explained his story to those too young and green to know, but as the day wore on, I could see he was getting tired. It was a Rivonia reunion with lawyers Joel Joffe, who became an insurance tycoon in Britain, and George Bizos, still fighting the good fight, there to reminisce with the men they saved from the noose.

On top of that, Denis had to settle a 50-year-old grudge with the late Bob Hepple, a former comrade who was up to his neck in the sabotage trial. He had negotiated his way out of police cells with a decision to turn state witness that led to him skipping the country to a knighthood and a comfortable life as a professor at Cambridge University.

“At the time, I told him you do this and people will cross the street to avoid you,” Denis told me.

To rub salt in the wound, Hepple sent Denis, insensitively, a Christmas card in prison in his first year of incarceration. Fifty years later, Denis shook hands with Hepple and buried the grudge with good humour.

My abiding memory of Denis came later on that day as the sunlight dimmed along with his fading energy. A young schoolgirl, in uniform, who must have been about 13, approached him as he was heading for the car to take him to the hotel.

“Excuse me, Mr Goldberg, I am doing my school project on the Rivonia trial, can I talk to you?” she says. Even I thought an exhausted Denis was going to decline politely, but he sat down and smiled.

More than an hour later I saw Denis sitting at the table telling patiently his story to the school girl making copious notes. Maybe she will fight for freedom one day too.

I smiled and walked away. That was Denis and I was proud to have known him.     

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