Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content
Skip Navigation LinksEskom Heritage>ESCOM 1940-1949 - The years of suffering - "Into the darkness"
ESCOM 1940-1949 - The years of suffering - "Into the darkness"
 At the outbreak of war in 1939 the first set of three boilers for extensions to Congella power station​ (Congella 2) were about to be imported from Great Britain when the British government commandeered them for use in the war effort.  In 1943 the ship carrying the replacement set was sunk by a German submarine.  Eventually in 1946 Congella 2 received its boilers and was commissioned, adding a further 40 MW capacity to Durban’s electricity supply. 
PS congella 01.jpg
Congella Power Station
 
 
The extra supply came in handy, for although electricity demand dipped in 1943 (for only the second time in ESCOM’s history) by 1944, when an Allied victory seemed certain, demand increased by 3.3% and by 6.6% the following year.  Indeed fuel and spare parts shortages (during the first part of the war) had placed strain on the system, and ESCOM was hard pressed to meet demand and had to rely on small generators belonging to ISCOR, municipalities, and even the Rand Water Board to keep the system running.

In January 1945 Vaal power station began producing electricity.  This power station was built to “feed into the grid system of the Commission and the Victoria Falls and Transvaal power Company, Limited” (1938 Annual Report, pg. 6).  While it did indeed contribute to the Rand network, it also supplied much needed power to new goldfields that were springing up in the Free State.  

The post war years saw renewed economic activity and growth, and ESCOM was increasingly called on to beef up its supply to smaller municipalities.  In 1946 the decision was made to build a power station at Worcester in the Cape (this became known as the Hex River Station) to strengthen supply to the Western Cape and electrify the railway line from Belville to Touws River (and later to Beaufort West).  Also in 1946 the East London municipality asked ESCOM to augment its supply, and in 1947 an agreement was reached whereby ESCOM acquired the West Bank power station.  The following year ESCOM extended its reach in the Eastern Cape by acquiring the King William’s Town and the Alice Municipal undertakings; and together with East London these three power stations formed the nucleus of what was later called the Border undertaking. 

West Bank - AR 1988 Pg 29.jpg 
 West BankPower Station
 

In 1948 ESCOM’s finances were in good shape to effect the long anticipated expropriation of the VFP.  ESCOM’s capital stood at over £30m, and total assets exceeded total liabilities by more than £10m.  There was one major problem to overcome though; the exact expropriation date was in dispute.  The 1922 Electricity Act was ambiguous, and depending on how the law was interpreted the date could range from November 1947 to November 1950.  Dr van der Bijl was keen to expedite the expropriation and directly appealed to Prime Minister Smuts in a 1944 letter arguing that early expropriation would save the gold mines £2m per year.  Smuts was unmoved and restated the government’s opinion that the later date was the correct one.  The gold mining industry had also done their sums, and was behind van der Bijl in his quest for early expropriation.  In January 1947 Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, chairman of Anglo American, wrote to Dr van der Bijl urging him to expedite the expropriation.  He even offered some shrewd advice: “Make an offer to the shareholders at a price slightly above the ruling market price: I have a hunch that this would be cheaper than dealing with [Bernard] Price.”

esk24_350.gif 
Vereeniging Power Station
 
 

As things turned out Dr van der Bijl negotiated with Bernard Price​ (chairman of the VFP) and after months of wrangling an agreement a formal agreement was signed on 16 June 1948 whereby ESCOM would pay the VFP £14.5m and commit to protecting the interests of VFP staff affected by the takeover.  At the time it was South Africa’s biggest merger, and one financed by a public loan of £15m which was oversubscribed within hours.   ESCOM acquired four power stations (Rosherville, Simmerpan, Vereeniging and Brakpan) with a total generating capacity of 298 MW.  It also acquired 2 100 km of transmission lines, 1 444 km of pilot and telephone lines, as well as 1 000 transformers, 18 distribution substations and 304 consumer substations.  Although the VFP had valued their assets at £14m, ESCOM reckoned that their replacement value would be almost double that amount.  ESCOM also increased its staff compliment of 1 692 to 7 850 people. 

VFP LOGO.jpg
VFP LOGO
 
 
While the take-over of the VFP was arguably farsighted and in the interests of securing a prosperous future for South Africa, events happening simultaneously in the political arena did not bode well for the country.  On 26 May 1948 DF Malan’s Herenigde National Party were voted into power by a whites-only electorate.  The National Party, as they came to be called in 1951, won only 41.63% of the vote, but the electoral system at the time was constituency based and the ‘First Past the Post’ principle meant votes in rural areas were worth far more than urban ones.  In the end it took only 443 719 South Africans to put the country on an inexorable path of racial repression.  Apartheid, a rather innocuous word meaning separateness, would take on a more sinister meaning as the already marginalised black community found themselves at best patronised, and at worst exploited and suppressed.  Although Dr van der Bijl was himself apolitical, he was a patriot who had given up great career prospects in the United States to be of service to his homeland.  It is tempting to imagine that he found the racist ideology of apartheid objectionable, and that the fateful 1948 elections had contributed to his untimely passing on 2 December 1948, of cancer.  At his funeral opposition parliamentarian, Sir de Villiers Graaf, described Dr van der Bijl as “the father of our industrial revolution, the master builder who evolved our whole economic structure.”

Albert Jacobs, (AM Jacobs.jpg) ESCOM’s chief engineer and a Commissioner since 1926, took over as chairman at the beginning of 1949.  After the end of the war ESCOM was faced with a dual challenge: strong industrial demand within South Africa, and worldwide shortages in power station plant equipment.  In 1949 the Rand Undertaking - an area which accounted for some 80% of South Africa’s wealth - experienced severe constraints, and ESCOM consulted with the Chamber of Mines to come up with a quota system and emergency rules whereby interruptions could be avoided.  Meanwhile ESCOM was furiously planning and designing new power stations, as well as upgrading current stations.  Capital was needed for an ambitious expansion programme, and in 1951 ESCOM secured a $30m loan from the International Bank for reconstruction and development.  The money would help beef up capacity at existing plants as well as pay for the seven new plants that were on order or in the advanced stages of planning.  

Meanwhile in early 1950 ESCOM acquired Kimberley’s Central power station from De Beers, which became sole supplier to the new Cape Northern Undertaking.  This undertaking covered 40 000 km2 – an area roughly the size of Switzerland, and brought home the point that, as a national power utility, ESCOM had an obligation to supply electricity to remote areas.  Hence in December 1951 the Rural Electrification Department was established to provide power to small consumers outside municipal supply areas.
Albert Jacobs.jpg 
 Albert Jacobs
 

In 1952 Albert Jacobs retired and passed the baton onto Dr JT Hattingh, ESCOM’s consulting engineer and a Commissioner since 1949.  Jacobs did have the satisfaction of presiding over the commissioning of Hex River power station, whose overall design and layout he had personally been responsible for.  The station’s first generator and boiler were commissioned in May 1952, and according to a well-known European supplier of steam turbines, it was the best power station design and layout he had seen anywhere in the world.

Dr J T Hattingh.jpg 
 Dr J T​ Hattingh
 

Problems with plant maintenance caused great concern. Machinery in use since ESCOM was established had to endure years of excessive use. ​ESCOM staff displayed ingenuity in expanding the electricity distribution system. During World War II, the Director-General of War Supplies ordered ESCOM to undertake the manufacture of instrumentation and parts for sophisticated weapons at its Rosherville workshop. A steel shortage caused ESCOM to build reinforced concrete pylons to support overhead high-voltage lines. These uncommon pylons were erected in Orange Free State (now known simply as Free State), Natal (now known as KwaZulu-Natal​) and Eastern Transvaal (now known as Mpumalanga).

World War II caused the commissioning of Vaal power station​ to be delayed.  It was finally on stream by 1952.  ESCOM had to dop without essential equipment due to the crippling of commercial shipping.  A ship carrying a trubo-generator set destined for Congella power station​ was torpedoed by a German submarine.  Various projects had to be postponed infefinitely.

svaal_ps.jpg

Vaal power station

In this period, power sales declined until the war turned in favour of the Allied Forces. In 1946, ESCOM had increased its annual sales to 5 000 million units. Despite the long-awaited peace conditions, ESCOM was greatly handicapped by the shortage of generation and distribution equipment. This delayed the erection of new power stations and taxed the capability of existing installations to respond to the high demand for electrical power. Demand from new gold fields in the Orange Free State, and applications from towns, mines and industries for electrical power supply, led to the expansion of ESCOM’s licenced area by 41 000 square kilometres.

ESCOM acquired the Port Shepstone power station in 1944. In 1947, ESCOM took over the running of  West Bank power station at the request of the East London municipality. At an ESCOM meeting in 1947, it was decided to take over the central power station of De Beers mines in Kimberley. ESCOM purchased the World War II caused the commissioning of Vaal power station​ to be delayed. It was finally on stream by 1952. ESCOM had to do without essential equipment due to the crippling of commercial shipping. A ship carrying a turbo-generator set destined for Congella ​​power station was torpedoed by a German submarine. Various projects had to be postponed indefinitely.​ Alice and King William’s Town municipal undertakings in 1948. All this resulted in the establishment of the Border and Northern Cape undertakings.

In accordance with conditions first stipulated in the Power Act of 1910 and included in the Electricity Act of 1922, all assets of the VFP were expropriated and taken over by ESCOM in 1948. ESCOM inherited a well-planned and properly established VFP power system. A new Rand undertaking was formed. Extensions to existing power stations at ColensoCongella​RoshervilleVaalWitbank​West Bank and Kimberley Central​ were undertaken.

ESCOM’s founding Chairman, Dr H J van der Bijl,​ died in December 1948. Mr A M Jacobs​​, previously ESCOM’s Chief Engineer and Technical Officer, succeeded Dr Van der Bijl as Chairman of ESCOM

​​​​​​​​