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Quiet year ahead for motor industry while South Africa’s economic and political factors play out

Opel’s new Mokka. (Photo: Supplied)

Next year is likely to be a subdued one for vehicles as the motor industry licks its wounds after a tough 2021.

They say that age is just a number, but unemployment statistics sure aren’t – especially if the number is almost 47%.

Even as somebody who lives in South Africa, and who is therefore suitably inured with a resistance built by years of overexposure to terrible economic news and human suffering, this one floored me. It’s probably hard to really understand just how horrific our unemployment crisis is if you live in the parts of town where they lay the fibre so you can read the online version of this column.

But even so, in that number I read levels of despair that are hard to contemplate, acknowledging, as we must, that the institutions of education, security, health and social protection that ought to protect vulnerable people from the consequences of our tanking economy are in many places entirely nonfunctional.

There are parts of SA that resemble William Hogarth’s Gin Lane, a political artwork produced at the height of London’s gin craze in the late 1600s, where deprivation and addiction are rampant and the only successful businesses are the distiller, the undertaker and the pawnbroker. A closer look at this grim artwork reveals familiar truths. In the background, a barber has hanged himself because of a dying business. A syphilitic mother has been forced into prostitution while her child falls to her death into the gin cellar. A carpenter and a cook negotiate with the mean-faced pawnbroker to sell their tools (a saw and a collection of pots and pans) so that they might afford more gin. Looking at the detail, scenes of starvation, infanticide, madness and misery fill the background.

The Volkswagen Polo. (Photo: Supplied)

London’s gin craze, like SA’s economic crisis, was caused by bad politics. The English government had banned imports of French alcohol to encourage distilling in England, mainly to prop up grain prices that were the fuel behind aristocratic landed wealth. Rising grain prices are thought to have brought it to an end. It’s hard, though, to conjure what kind of intervention will fix the fact that half of our compatriots are unable to find work, or are so discouraged after years of trying that they have simply given up.

Simplistic answers don’t help. Everything is interconnected. For jobs, of course, you need employers, but the ANC hates employers. Employers need educated and healthy people who can get to work on time. Anyone who relies on the state for any of those attributes is starting from the back of the grid. It’s all broken and hideously complicated, and fixing it requires the dedicated work of two generations and a re-evaluation of the role of the state in creating jobs.

There is no magic bullet to fix South Africa, just a change of government and lots – lots – of time. That so much time has already been wasted is a ruthlessly disinterested fact of history.

The Ford Ranger. (Photo: Supplied)

It also requires the ANC to concede the 2024 election peacefully. We’ll get a sense of how likely that is after the ANC’s elective conference next year. If it’s a shambles, and if the Radical Economic Transformation/Zuma faction doesn’t splinter off into yet another fascist offshoot of ANC sore losers like the EFF before it, then at least those of us who can, know we have a couple of years to pack our bags and book our flights. Those guys care not for democracy and there is no boundary to their appetite for destruction. The Durban July (ANC edition) was just a taste of it.

In the meantime, it seems likely that SA’s two nations will continue to live alongside each other in an uncomfortable dissonance, and that new cars will continue to feel incredibly expensive, even for people on the right side of the security boom. In the face of the semiconductor shortage, the car companies are rationing their supply internally to prop up production of their high-margin models – generally the luxury stuff – resulting in crazy sales dynamics. For months in Germany, the Mercedes S-Class has come close to outselling the C-Class. For us in SA, that means the days of discounts and intra-brand dealership competition are over. New cars are fetching 100% recommended retail price or even more, and good nearly new used cars are worth their weight in gold.

Add the volatility of the currency, and affordable modern cars are a thing of the past.

The Opel Grandland. (Photo: Supplied)

As we draw to the end of the year, it figures that I’ll spend some time looking back at what 2021 has brought us, but for now, what products are coming our way in 2022? It’s easy to be distracted by the sexy stuff, such as the new Range Rover, Toyota GR86, a blitzkrieg Porsche Cayenne (Turbo GT) or the 911 GT3. I’m excited about the Rolls-Royce Spectre, but the stuff that’s going to sell in a country under huge pressure will be the face-lifted Volkswagen Polo, the all-new Ford Ranger (and hopefully the end of the firm’s “special editions” sticker pack marketing cycle for the old car). The new Nissan Qashqai is a big one, and some new Opels (Mokka and Grandland) are on their way, sporting a snazzy new design and farm-fresh Stellantis underpinnings that could inject the brand with a good mix of desirability, affordability and talent. Kia is going to have a big year (new Sportage, Sorento and Carnival) too. But in all, it looks like a quiet year ahead as the motor industry licks its wounds and waits for SA’s economic bloodbath and political consequences to play out. DM168

Alexander Parker is a journalist, author and consultant.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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