Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Dr. Hendrik van der Bijl: Role of State Epitomised

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Dr. Hendrik van der Bijl: Genius
Recently I was invited by Johan Fourie (@JohanFourieZA) to The University of Stellenbosch's ERSA Economics of Apartheid Workshop. In a panel with economists and an audience of Economics students, I made some rather (evidently) unpopular statements about the role of state and state-owned DFI's in accelerating the participation of Black people in the economy and attempting to reverse the economic disparities caused by the scourge that was Apartheid.

My fundamental point was that the state can support exceptional talent to effect real change and restore the key thing Apartheid robbed black people of: DIGNITY. 

Here is an extract from my address:

"Black people came out of a very expensive and bloody struggle into political power. We now have some level of control of the state. We have virtually no control of the economy. Thanks to the good work of the government, Black people (generally) live substantially better lives than they did under apartheid. Which means they are becoming better educated, and more affluent. Like the Afrikaners, they are getting to the big cities and realizing that they are in fact not in control. At least not of the stuff that really matters: THE ECONOMY. 

Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) is a very sound economic transformation strategy. However, it's success relies on the "haves" letting the “have-nots” share at the table peacefully by incentivising them to do the right thing (carrot), as opposed to punishing them for doing the wrong thing (stick). 

For as long as this is the case, Blacks will be at the mercy of the established to let them in. Their dignity will not be restored. The dangerous culture of entitlement will intensify. We ALL lose. 

BEE needs to be about creating an enabling environment for entrepreneurs to flourish, create employment and grow the economy. The only sustainable way to grow the economy is to innovate and create new products, new services, new markets, not re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic with more BEE deals. 

This calls for harnessing our own talents as South Africans. There is nothing wrong with using state leverage to do that. Look at the United States. Look at South Korea. Look at China. What's wrong with us? Why is it so wrong for the state to use its competitive edge to support the development of its people and create world class black owned and managed businesses. I fear less the risk of doing this, I shudder at the thought of NOT doing it.

In short: I think that harnessing the potential of a Siyabulela Xuza will serve South Africa better in future, than every the BEE deal done to date.

We need to harness the talent we have and build industries around innovators and entrepreneurs. And the lesson from the past is that the role of state is key. 

The 'wave of wealth creation by lamenting established capital in order to open the higher echelons for a few to be wealthy' is gone. This is OUR government now. There is no-one to fight anymore, no Apartheid, no Botha, no Verwoerd. Just us.

WE simply have to make South Africa work. End of discussion.

I would like to end with a life story that was first shared with me by a dear friend Veli Mcobothi (@McobothiOne), a revolutionary intellectual in his own right. 

I think the role of state in this story is worth noting:

HENDRIK VAN DER BIJL, the second son of Pieter van der Bijl was born on 23rd November 1887 in Pretoria. His parents were typical burghers of the Zuid Afrikaansche (i.e. Boer) Republic of the Transvaal. His father, Pieter, was the 7th generation of the original Dutch van der Bijl family to be born in South Africa. Pieter (Hendrik’s dad) build up a successful business as a merchant and property investor. He became quite influential, counting among his many friends such well-known South African politicians and future Prime Ministers as Louis Botha, Jan Smuts, and Barry Hertzog.

Young Hendrik’s education was disrupted because of the Anglo-Boer War. He attended the Staatsch Model School in Pretoria, but the school was closed down and converted to a prisoner-of-war camp. After the fall of Pretoria in 1900, the family moved to Gordon's Bay and Hendrik was sent to Boys' High School at Franschhoek, from where he matriculated. The boy was interested in music and literature, and philosophy interested him deeply, but it was the exactness and logic of science that gave him great satisfaction, the application of which he held in even greater esteem. The boy did well at school and continued his studies at the Victoria College (today the University of Stellenbosch).

At Victoria College he excelled at physics, but in 1908, when he graduated it was with distinctions in mathematics and chemistry, for which he was the Top Student. In those days opportunities for a man of his talents were somewhat limited. He could either become a lecturer and later a professor of physics or join the Department of Agriculture. On the other hand, he could further his studies in Europe. He decided on Europe and as the German universities were considered leaders in the field of experimental physics, he went to Germany. 

Within two years, van der Bijl completed his thesis to prove an electron carried the same fundamental charge in ionised liquids as in gases. Impressed by his talent and dedication, his supervisor recommended him highly and he was offered the post of Assistant in Physics at the Royal School of Technology at Dresden. At the beginning of 1912, the 24 year-old van der Bijl took up his new duties, having left university with the degrees of Masters of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy.

Van der Bijl then met Robert Millikan, the eminent American physicist. Millikan was impressed with the young van der Bijl and recommended the young scientist to the Western Electric Company. Van der Bijl accepted their job offer and set out for New York.

His research at this company on the thermionic valve, which was developed by Dr Lee de Forest, led to his treatise entitled The Thermionic Vacuum Tube and Its Applications. It became the standard textbook on the subject for more than 20 years. This research led to the use of these tubes in radio communication. The first successful transmission of speech by radio was made in 1915. Later that year speech was transmitted by radio over a distance of more than 8 000 km. Van der Bijl managed to get the amplifiers to work to the precise tolerances required over this very long distance.

He married an American girl and during the First World War was approached by the American government to assist them with the defence system of the country. He was also associated with the Bell Telephone Laboratories and by 1917 had made significant contributions to the development of the photo-electric cell and by this means also made significant contribution to the development of the television.

General Jan Smuts had assumed the reigns of government in South Africa. Smuts thought that a scientific adviser would be an asset to his Cabinet. 

Van der Bijl was persuaded to return to South Africa and in 1920 he left the United States. He was formally appointed as Scientific and Technical Adviser to the Department of Mines and Industries, but was directly responsible to the Prime Minister. At first his work was unrelated to electricity, but soon he started with plans for a public utility to provide the industries with cheap electricity.

Van der Bijl wanted to combine the advantage of a state-controlled undertaking with those of a public concern. The capital would be provided by the State and the company would be run on commercial lines. These ideas had already occurred to van der Bijl while in the United States.

In 1923 the Electricity Supply Commission (Escom) was founded. As Chairman, van der Bijl borrowed R16 million from the State and began putting his plans into action. From the outset the undertaking was success and within 10 years van der Bijl was able to pay back to the State loan.

Under his expert guidance Escom progressed form strength to strength and within a short period of time van der Bijl was able to fulfil his promise: South Africa was assured of sufficient inexpensive power for its fast-growing industries.

With Escom progressing so well, this far-sighted scientist was able to direct his attention to the steel industry. Before long Escom had an industrial twin, namely Iscor (the South African Iron and Steel Corporation). In this instance the promise was to provide inexpensive steel for South Africa. In 1934 the first steel was produced.

During the Second World War, van der Bijl became Director-General of War Supplies and later Director of Supplies, appointments that afforded him the status of a Minister.

It was also during this period that he became a Fellow of the Royal Society, an honour he considered to be the greatest afforded him.

By the end of the war in 1945, Dr Hendrik van der Bijl could look back on 25 years devoted to serving his country. During this period he had been responsible for the founding of dynamic undertakings such as Escom, Iscor, Amcor, Vecor and the development of what we today still call Vanderbijlpark. 

The sources of this material are: A Symphony of Power – The Eskom Story, and Eskom: Golden Jubilee 1923 - 1973. "The Remarkable Dr Hendrik van der Bijl" Dirk J Vermeulen, SAIEE Historical Interest Group, The Proceedings of the IEEE vol 86 no 12, December 1998


  1. I have a question, as I see and agree that the role of the state is to invest in more innovative products that can benefit the people. It seems to me that right now the sate, our current sate is driven by selfish interests. And that is evident when you look at things like government enterprises. They seem to flourish more than the non government once... Look at the implementation of the E-Toll,, SAA, 8ta, Reya Vaya and the others. They seem to do more and enter the commercial market well because the government puts too much effort on them. Why is the same not done in our businesses? Because we do not have politicians with interests in our business so they will never invest in our businesses. What are their chances of survival even when they get bankrupt oh wait.. The government will play business rescue (Think SAA). When I go bankrupt with my little business what then..?? It’s over…. How then do we tackle this under such current state of affairs?

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