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The Challenge of Fifth Years from the General Manager - Jan H Smith

When a firm or an institution like ESCOM has been in existence for fifty years, it is a memorable occasion that should be observed in a fitting manner.  It is an important milestone in its career, a time, to look back on what has been achieved and to assess the challenges of the future.

ESCOM was founded fifty years ago, almost on a shoestring, but with faith in the future of a young country and with the awareness of the urgent need of building a viable economy for future generations.

                                                       jan h smith banquet.jpg
                                                                               Jan H Smith proposing a toast to the guests at the banquet

It is true to state that the need for electrifying certain sections of the South African railways was the primary objective for the founding of  ESCOM, and nothing can detract from the soundness of such a requirement.  However, fast-moving rail traffic alone, although conducive to a sound economy.  An efficient railway system is necessary for the transport of people and goods, but if the volume of the goods is lacking, then fast rail traffic is of limited significance.

The basic requirement is that the resources of the country and the industry of its people should be utilized and hence that opportunities should be created for the utilization of that industry and those resources.  What was needed in the days of the founding of ESCOM was a means of assisting and promoting the exploitation of the resources of South Africa and the industry of its people.  ESCOM was the first implement created for the achievement of these purposes and the founding of ESCOM coincided with the starting of South Africa as industrial country.

It is customary to state that the establishment of ESCOM arose from the report on the electrification of the South African Railways by Charles Merz, a famous consulting engineer from Britain.  Merz, son of a renowned British lawyer, was invited by Sir William Hoy, at that time General Manager of the South African Railways, to report on the electrification of the South African Railways and paid his visit to South Africa in 1919.  In due course the well-known Merz Report was submitted to the Government.

                                      harding banquet.jpg
Mr Harding former General Manager, Mrs Harding, Mr W H Milton former Chief Commerical Engineer, and Mrs Milton recalling a golden anniversary perhaps?
 We are not concerned here with the technical aspects of the Merz Report which laid down the principles on which the electricity supply industry should be founded and on which ESCOM was in fact established, but with the wider perspective with which Merz approached the problem.

As an objective outsider, not blinded by the commanding position which the mining industry occupied in the South African economy, Merz drew attention to the need for the exploitation of the natural resources   and the establishment of basic industries in various parts of the country supplied with power from centrally situated power stations.  This was in direct contrast to the official Railway view that industries should be established in close proximity to the electrified railway line, and was in fact a forerunner to the decentralization of industry, a policy which successive South African governments came to adopt in subsequent years.

In reviewing the history of ESCOM and the industrial development of South Africa during the past fifty years, for the two are inextricable bound together, due tribute must be paid to this far-sighted engineer.  Within ten years of his arrival in South Africa, The South African Government implemented another of his proposals by establishing the South African steel industry, today known as ISCOR.

The brief remarks above give the background against which the founding of ESCOM must be seen to the Railways be seen and interpreted, not merely as a supplier of power to the Railways but also as an instrument for the industrial development of South Africa.

ESCOM may have been founded on a shoe-string, but its progress through a period of fifty years I known to many of our employees.  A commemorative volume to tell this remarkable story is now with the printers.  Suffice it to say that South Africa is the principal industrial nations of continent of Africa and ESCOM is at present supplying approximately 50% of the electricity used on this continent.

It is not too much to say that the task of leading ESCOM from the old era into the new is just as important and decidedly more onerous than the task of setting and leading ESCONM on its course 50 years ago.
ESCOM 50.jpg 
ESCOM CENTRE Braamfontein
The spirit and faith in a worthy undertaking which inspired the pioneering leaders and workers of fifty years ago and during the decades up to the present, still remain the sterling qualities present-day ESSCOM; the challenge which was posed half a century ago to carry a bold and new concept to success is as new and real and exciting today as it was then.

What is most heartening of all are the indications that, despite the changes which have marked the end of ESCOM’s first fifty years, the adoption of and adaptation to new procedures and the challenge of service to a totally different South African community – in fact to a Southern African community – are being taken up as strongly and courageously as was the case fifty years ago.


Stamps issued for ESOM's Jubilee