The Years of Establishment - "Electrifying our beloved country"

Hofman's Building
Colenso Power Station
Congella Power Station
For South Africans living at the turn of the 19th century, the introduction of electricity must have been as exciting a development as the internet is to our generation today.  But, like all new inventions and innovations, it took time before electricity began to impact people’s lives in a major way.  The good townspeople of Kimberley were the first in Africa to experience the joys of electric streetlights (1882), and they even managed to beat London to it.  
In 1886 an Australian prospector by the name of George Harrison stumbled upon a gold outcrop, in what is now Johannesburg, and declared a claim with the government of the Zuid Afrikaanse Republiek.  Harrison is believed to have sold his claim for less than 10 pounds – but in any event he was not heard of or seen again.  From then on mining was to be the main driver of development in South Africa as thousands of immigrants flocked to the city of gold seeking their fortune.  Johannesburg grew rapidly –within five years of its existence it became South Africa’s first city to install an electricity reticulation system, which was powered by steam engines.  This is remarkable considering that Cape Town is 200 years older than Johannesburg.  Soon the mining companies realised that steam-generated power was inadequate for their needs and they joined forces to build small power stations to supplement the existing supply.  In 1906 these smaller undertakings were bought out by the Victoria Falls Power Company (VFP) as the mining bosses sought large centralised power stations as opposed to small dedicated ones.  
By 1915 the VFP – so named because of its original aim to harness hydro-electric power from Victoria Falls – had built four thermal power stations (BrakpanSimmerpanRosherville and Vereeniging) with a total installed capacity of 160 megawatts.  At around the same time, a system control centre was established at Simmerpan, which later developed into the ESCOM National Control Centre.  Today, this Centre controls the national network, as well as the generating output of all ESCOM power stations.  Meanwhile, in 1910, the Transvaal Colonial Government, realising the strategic importance of electricity, passed The Power Act.  This piece of legislation defined electricity as a public service, and gave the government the power to expropriate private electricity undertakings after a period of 35 years.  
From the earliest days of rail in South Africa, SAR (South African Railways) had been considering the idea of using electricity, as opposed to steam, to power the railways.  In 1918 SAR invited a top London engineer by the name of Charles Merz to brief them on the matter.  The Merz Report was submitted to Jan Smuts’s government in April 1920, which formed a committee to look into how South Africa should proceed with electrification.  The findings of this committee led to the passing of the Electricity Act of 1922 which laid the foundations of the development of an electricity supply industry in South Africa to “stimulate the provision, wherever required, of a cheap and abundant supply of electricity”.  From then on the South African electricity industry would be regulated, controlled, and ultimately run by a parastatal.  
One of the principle authors of the Electricity Act was a certain Dr Hendrik Johannes van der Bijl, a brilliant young research scientist whom the Smuts government had appointed to advise them on industrial development.  It was van der Bijl’s vision that South Africa should take its rightful place among the world’s leading industrialised nations by 1) setting up a reliable, low-cost electricity power supply, and 2) establishing an iron and steel industry.  It was partly thanks to his farsighted vision that the Government Gazette of 6 March 1923 announced the establishment of the Electricity Supply Commission (ESCOM), effective from 1 March 1923.  Dr Van der Bijl’s passion for industrialisation was given free expression as he took up the reins as ESCOM’s first chairman.  This great South African industrialist laid out exactly what he had in mind for his new-born infant.
“There lies before the Electricity Supply Commission a great task and a great opportunity.  It will be our endeavour to play our part not as those who follow where others lead, but as pioneers; to foresee the needs of a country fast developing, and by wise anticipation be ever ready to provide power without profit, wherever it may be required.”  (Dr van der Bijl) 
Although the commission held its first meeting in Cape Town (20 March 1923), it soon situated its headquarters on the first storey of Hofman’s Building in Johannesburg, before moving to Electricity House in 1924.  At that time, railways across the country were being electrified, and ESCOM was tasked with taking over electrification of the Glencoe to Pietermaritzburg rail link, as well as the Cape Town suburban railways.  It also began work on the establishment of new power stations in Cape Town, Durban, Sabie and Witbank.  Although the VFP, very much the major electricity supplier in the Transvaal, had initially applied to ESCOM to erect a power station at Witbank, Dr van der Bijl opposed the application on the grounds that the VFP did not sell electricity at cost, and that electricity consumers would in effect be enriching VFP shareholders.  After some negotiations, and the timely intervention of Prime Minister Smuts himself, a deal was struck whereby ESCOM would own and finance the power station that would be designed, built and operated by the VFP.  Witbank power station was commissioned in 1926 and the arrangement turned out to be a win-win situation for all parties.  In that same year a power station was commissioned in Colenso and two years after that Congella and Salt River 1 coal-fired power stations were commissioned. 
In 1925 ESCOM erected the Malieveldspruit hydro station as a temporary measure while a bigger hydro station was being built at the Sabie River Gorge, which eventually became operational halfway through 1927.  These two power stations were the first to be built and used by ESCOM.  In spite of a worldwide economic depression in 1929, ESCOM still enjoyed strong demand – with sales of 800 million units that year.  In response to the increased demand, two additional sets of 20MW were commissioned at Witbank power station, bringing its total capacity to 100MW.  Witbank was now the largest power station in the country, producing the cheapest electricity in the world.  And ESCOM’s construction of Doornpoort Dam (in the Great Olifants River) meant Witbank now enjoyed abundant water and electricity supply, allowing for the development of the coal-mining industry in the surrounding area.  ESCOM also designed and installed a street lighting system for the town that became an international showpiece. 
In 1932 South African mining received a major boost when the discovery of gold-fields near Randfontein coincided with a steep rise in the gold price.  It became clear that ESCOM would have to build new power stations to satisfy the increasing demand of the gold mines.  But first there were two major obstacles to be overcome: the VFP had a virtual monopoly on electricity supply to the gold-mines; and there was a serious shortage of water near the Rand. 
The Government Gazette of 6 March 1923 announced the establishment of The Electricity Supply Commission (ESCOM), effective from 1 March 1923. Dr Hendrik Johannes van der Bijl, a leading research scientist appointed by the Smuts government as a “Technical Advisor on Industrial Development to the Department of Mines and Industries”, was appointed first Chairman of ESCOM. The Commission was made responsible for establishing and maintaining electricity supply undertakings on a regional basis. Electricity was to be supplied efficiently, cheaply and abundantly to government departments, railways and harbours, local authorities and industry. The Commission met for the first time on 20 March 1923 in Cape Town. The Commission’s headquarters opened in Johannesburg on 1 May 1923 on the first storey of Hofman’s Buildings. The headquarters moved to Electricity House in 1924.

Matters demanding the early attention of the Commission:

  • The electrification of the Cape Town suburban railways

  • Taking over from the Railway Administration the Colenso power station and traction sub-stations being constructed to electrify the Glencoe to Pietermaritzburg rail link

  • The establishment of new power stations at Cape Town, Durban, Sabie and Witbank

The erection of Witbank was achieved by an agreement between ESCOM and the VFP. ESCOM was to finance and own the power station that the VFP was to design, build and operate. The VFP agreed to transmit all surplus electricity capacity to the Witwatersrand

​Witbank Power Station
​​Salt River Power Station
​Electricity House​
​Sabie River Gorg​e Power Station

In 1925, the Commission obtained four power supply licences and the Cape Town, Witbank, Sabie and Central Natal undertakings were established. A year later, two coal-fired power stations, Colenso and Witbank, were commissioned. Two years after that, Congella and Salt River coal-fired power stations were commissioned.

The erection of Malieveldspruit hydro station was a temporary measure undertaken by ESCOM to ease the electrical power demands of the gold mines in the Eastern Transvaal (Mpumalanga today). This station was replaced by a hydro station in the Sabie River which came into commercial operation in mid-1927. The Sabie River Gorge hydro station was the first station designed by ESCOM engineers. The year 1929 closed with ESCOM enjoying power sales of approximately 800 million units.