Ian McRae, Who Brought Electricity to Black South Africa, Dies at 90

Ian McRae, Who Brought Electricity to Black South Africa, Dies at 90


They prepared to provide electrical power to the segregated urban areas reserved for nonwhites; upgraded the utility distribution systems in Angola, Lesotho and Mozambique with the intention of integrating them into a sub-continental power grid; and hired and trained Black workers to manage and maintain new power plants as demand for electricity grew.

“Eskom was legally prohibited from providing electricity to Black communities,” Art Kleiner, Jeffrey Schwartz and Josie Thomson wrote in “The Wise Advocate: The Inner Voice of Strategic Leadership” (2019). But under Mr. McRae it became “one of the first companies to move away from apartheid,” by secretly negotiating with Black leaders, making their case to the government for electrical power and other concessions, and hiring through affirmative action programs.

Ian Campbell McRae was born on Sept. 24, 1929, in Germiston in the East Rand region just east of Johannesburg. He was a grandson of a railroad engineer who had immigrated from Scotland. His father, George, was a fitter who built and repaired machinery for the Victoria Falls Power Company, the same type of job that Ian would take as an apprentice for Eskom. His mother, Netta McRae, was a homemaker.

After earning a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Witwatersrand in 1953, Mr. McRae was hired by Eskom full-time, working first at power plants and, from 1977 to 1980, as head of operations, responsible for increasing the utility’s generating capacity, which contributed to the birth of South Africa’s smelting industry. He was head of engineering from 1980 to 1984.

After he retired, he was the founding chairman of the National Electricity Regulator of South Africa.

His son is his only immediate survivor. A daughter, Heather, died in 2018. His wife, Jessie (Scott) McRae, died last year.



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