University of Pretoria: ‘A greener electricity supply industry is imperative’ – Eskom Chief Executive during memorial lecture co-hosted by UP

“We can collectively reinvent and reimagine a future for South Africa, once again built on electricity, but this time based on clean and green energy.”

This was the sentiment expressed by Eskom Group Chief Executive André de Ruyter at the 57th Hendrik van der Bijl Memorial Lecture co-hosted virtually by the University of Pretoria’s (UP) Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology (EBIT) and the South African Academy of Engineering (SAAE). The lecture honours the life and legacy of Dr Hendrik van der Bijl, a South African electrical engineer and industrialist who has been credited as having contributed to the country’s development.

In his welcome remarks, Dean of the EBIT Faculty Professor Sunil Maharaj, an SAAE fellow, said since the lecture was first hosted in 1963, the general theme has been on the role of engineering in society.

De Ruyter presented his speech under the title ‘A vision for a restructured electricity supply industry in South Africa’. With Eskom intending to retire 22GW of coal-fired generation over the next 15 years, De Ruyter submitted that this presented the perfect opportunity for South Africa to migrate to cleaner energy generation.

“Just as Dr Van der Bijl realised that South Africa had an endowment of abundant and cheap coal, we have of late realised that South Africa has some of the best solar and wind acreage in the world,” he said. “The benefit of this endowment is that we cannot export sun and wind: we have to beneficiate it here. It is clear that we have an opportunity to pivot away from Eskom’s carbon-intensive history, and lay the groundwork for a cleaner and greener electricity supply industry. And it is more than an opportunity – it is an economic, social and environmental imperative.”

De Ruyter also spoke of the role that Dr Van der Bijl played as the first chairman of the Electricity Supply Commission (ESCOM) in the establishment of the electricity supply industry in 1923.

“Dr Van der Bijl was not only an industrial pioneer who played a critical role in the development of the electricity supply industry, but he also remains an integral part of Eskom’s heritage. In the somewhat stilted English of the officialdom of the day, Dr Van der Bijl said something quite profound: ‘South Africa cannot afford to be unmindful of the very great changes that are taking place in other countries. One cannot help being impressed with the enormous industrial potentialities of this country.’”

He added that while Dr Van der Bijl was a towering figure in the development of the country, he had also used all avenues at his disposal to help with the growth and development of the Afrikaner community.

“Dr Van der Bijl was also a man of his times,” De Ruyter said. “His vision of industrialisation was premised on Afrikaner empowerment, creating jobs for a rapidly urbanising, under-skilled white population – with black mobility then being restricted by various laws. In this vision of economic prosperity, he certainly succeeded, but it is appropriate to acknowledge that this was an exclusionary vision, and didn’t include African people as much more than mere cheap manual labour. This vision was ultimately hardwired into the apartheid legislation that was codified when the National Party came to power in 1948.”

SAAE President Professor Elsabe Kearsley awarded De Ruyter the status of “honorary engineer” and expressed her thanks to UP for what has been a successful partnership spanning five decades.

“We have come a long way over the past 57 years, with this joint lecture,” she said. “I would like to thank UP for the work that has gone into this event. It is our second online presentation [due to the COVID-19 pandemic] and we received word that we have attendees from various parts of the world. Without going online, this would not have been possible.”

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