CAPE TOWN’S ELECTRICITY SUPPLY 1870-c.1930 – by Jane Carruthers

Ten Years: A record of the progress and achievements of the Electricity Supply Commission 1923-1933, frontispiece

Ten Years: A record of the progress and achievements of the Electricity Supply Commission 1923-1933, frontispiece

All South Africans are currently aware of the unfortunate situation pertaining to the state electricity supply through the technical and managerial shortcomings of ESKOM that have resulted in regular load-shedding and raised concerns for the country’s economic wellbeing without sufficient electrical power for its present requirements, let alone its future needs. In this winter of frequent darkness and discontent, a brief history of electricity supply in Cape Town, the city that had the first municipal electricity undertaking in South Africa, seems an appropriate historical fragment.

Although the phenomenon of electricity was known for many years, it was only with Michael Faraday’s invention of the dynamo in 1831 that electricity production became possible and forty years later, with the invention of a commercial dynamo and developments in the steel industry, that it was feasible to produce electric power commercially.

The first electric lighting recorded in Cape Town was in September 1870 when Henry Edwards, a showman, demonstrated arc lighting. This was expensive and liable to burst into flame, but in 1883 the railways became the first bulk electricity consumer when the Anglo-African Electric Light Company was formed, supplying the docks with 22 lights and the railway station with six. The Cape House of Assembly also replaced its exterior gaslights with electric arc lights at this time, while the interior was lit by the newer and safer incandescent devices.

In 1884 Charles Parsons revolutionised power generation by inventing the steam turbine that produced rotary motion. This, together with innovation and improvement in the use of alternating current, induction motors and electrochemistry, ushered in what has been referred to as The Age of Electricity or the Second Industrial Revolution. It became clear that electricity was useful not only for lighting, but as a source of power for industries and railway traction. The role and status of those working in this new revolution were recognised as a new profession in 1889 when the Institution of Electrical Engineers was founded.

Muizenberg Power Station in the early 1900s.

Muizenberg Power Station in the early 1900s.

Numerous municipalities around the world saw the potential for providing electricity as a service, Cape Town among them. Until 1895 Cape Town bought its supply from the Cape Peninsula Light Company, but that year it established the first municipal electricity undertaking in South Africa – the Graaff Electric Light Station. Situated near the Molteno Reservoir, this supplied electricity for lighting (making Cape Town citizens safer at night) but also gave the town a source of revenue and a way of controlling the cost of electricity. The Graaff Station could generate electricity by water or steam (although only steam was used at first), and overhead and underground wires were laid to a distribution point in Dorp Street. There were two 150kW DC 440V reciprocating dynamo engines and lighting was supplied at 110V on a five-wire system. In the first year of operation, there were 20 consumers and 35 800 units were supplied. Long-range transmission was not feasible so all consumers were in the central city area.

The first legislation relating to electricity supply was passed by the Cape Colony in 1895, but it did not regulate installation standards or voltages. As elsewhere, suppliers were free to produce a wide range of voltages, phases, periodicity and type of current, leading to what was referred to as ‘an interesting variety of technical detail’. In 1897 improvements to the Graaff Station were introduced in the form of the now-common three-wire system. By 1898 the customer base had grown, the entire plant was extended, and the Dorp Street distribution station was converted into a second generating system. In 1902 a temporary station was required at Dock Road, and two years later it was converted into a permanent station. 2 000kW of DC generators were installed, producing 1 700 000 units for 1 300 customers.

In 1913 the majority of the smaller municipalities in the Cape peninsula were amalgamated into the city of Cape Town. Each had their own electricity supply and the matter of resolving them into a smoothly-operating and unified system for the enlarged municipal area was politically fraught and technically challenging. At the time, Walter Long was the City Electrical Engineer of Cape Town. He had joined the corporation in mid-1902 and had been responsible for the planning and design of the Dock Road station, the installation of the first turbo-generators in 1912 and 1913, the acquisition of the Cape Peninsula Lighting Company, and in obtaining the railways, harbour and post office as customers. He also standardised some voltages, attempted to reduce charges and thus stimulate the demand which was made possible by the increasingly cost-efficient turbo-alternators.

Long resigned in 1915 and the outbreak of the First World War halted any further improvements. Only after 1918, with the appointment of George Swingler, who had been involved in electricity supply to Muizenberg, Kalk Bay and Wynberg, as City Electrical Engineer, did the municipal undertaking make further strides. With the impact of technology firmly established by the war and with more advances in design, cost-efficiency, transmission and distribution systems, it was possible not only to keep pace with demand but to supply cheap, convenient power in excess of it. By 1918 electricity had become the predominant form of energy for armament and ship manufacture and for all the manufacturing industries and it was therefore a tool not only for economic development, but also for social engineering.

The post-war world was one of changing values through collectivisation and, indeed, nationalisation. As recorded in ESCOM’s 1933 commemorative publication, the South African government recognising ‘the general utility of electric power in almost all phases of human activity and its transcending influence in the development of a country, took steps to ensure that in future the electricity supply industry of the Union would be directed along lines which had been indicated by experience in the more highly developed countries’. In 1919 Charles H. Merz, of the Newcastle firm of Merz and McLellan, was appointed as a consultant. His country-wide report into electricity supply was considered in 1921 by a committee chaired by Sir Robert Kotzé, the renowned mining engineer. The deliberations of this committee culminated in a Bill being drafted and unanimously enacted as the Electricity Act No. 42 of 1922. This legislation went much further than Merz had recommended by regulating co-operation between the public, semi-public and private sectors. It even subordinated supplies to one Electricity Control Board and compelled all municipalities to obtain their supplies through this Board. The reason given for this monopoly was that ‘it was utterly futile to expect a Government Department to undertake and conduct the generation and supply of electricity on business lines’. The Electricity Supply Commission (ESCOM/EVKOM) thus came into being in March 1923 with members appointed by government, but operating like a private concern and subject to the jurisdiction of the Electricity Control Board.

Cape Town was only one of many municipalities at the time that were extremely concerned about the inefficiencies that would result from the establishment of such a body and campaigned strongly against it. With its lack of expertise and infrastructure, ESCOM’s entry into the market – particularly through its close relationship with the railways (that required conversion from AC to DC) – meant that the electricity load would be increasingly unstable, that plans for regional expansion would be curtailed, and that coal supplies would be upset. There were also genuine fears that ESCOM would be at the vagaries of politics and politicians and that genuine  local interests, such as those of the municipalities, would be detrimentally affected.  ESCOM’s success was far from assured and its long list of failings was debated in Parliament in 1929. The electrification of the railways in Natal and the Cape had not run smoothly and ESCOM was running at a substantial loss.

Electricity House, Johannesburg, mid 1930s.

Electricity House, Johannesburg, mid 1930s.

However, just a few years later, between 1936 and 1938, ESCOM built an imposing head office building in Johannesburg. At 21 storeys, it was the tallest building in the country and among the tallest reinforced concrete buildings in the world at that time. Architectural historian Clive Chipkin has explained that it was erected ‘to achieve the imagery of progress and modernity’. Floodlit at night, sunlit by day, there were more than 280 offices, a large exhibition hall (named the Hall of Achievement), lecture theatres and many boardrooms, recreational facilities, a chemical laboratory and other amenities. The building was imploded in 1983 and it is ironic that a search for ‘ESKOM’ and ‘implode’ on the web brings up a large number of news reports predicting the implosion of ESKOM itself.

To date the only book about the history of electricity in South Africa through the lens of political economy is Electricity, Industry and Class in South Africa by Renfrew Christie FRSSAf, former Dean of Research at the University of the Western Cape.

Carruthers, J., ‘G.H. Swingler and the supply of electricity to Cape Town’, in Saunders, C. et al, eds, Studies in the History of Cape Town, Vol. 5, 1984, pp.208-236.
Chipkin, C., Johannesburg Style: Architecture and Society 1880s–1960s (Cape Town: David Philip, 1993).
Christie, R., Electricity, Industry and Class in South Africa (Basingstoke: Macmillan and Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984).
Dubow, S., A Commonwealth of Knowledge; Science Sensibility, and White South Africa 1820-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp.236-240.
ESCOM, Ten Years: A Record of the Progress and Achievements of the Electricity Supply Commission, 1923-1933 (Johannesburg: ESCOM, 1933).