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South Africa’s motor manufacturing sector needs to ch...

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Opinionista

South Africa’s motor manufacturing sector needs to change to save itself

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Alexander Parker is a journalist and consultant. His work has appeared regularly in a number of South African newspapers and magazines. He is the author of ‘25 Cars to Drive Before You Die’ and his latest book, 50 People Who F**ked Up South Africa: The Lost Decade, is in bookshops now.

Stories behind the latest car sales figures need to be taken with a bakkie full of salt because there’s more to it than a post-Covid recovery – we could be in the early stages of a developing crisis for the motor manufacturing industry.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Let’s be clear: anybody ascribing current sales growth on a year-on-year basis to their own talent is either catastrophically stupid or – worse – thinks that you are.

Breathless stories telling us that the motor industry saw more than 32% sales growth in March 2021 compared with March last year are all very cute, but considering the fact that all the dealerships were closed and we were not, as you may recall, even allowed out of our houses to walk the dog, let alone buy a car, is probably more relevant than anything local dealers and manufacturers have done in the past few months.

So, please read these stories with a solid bakkie full of salt, ideally, a Toyota Hilux bakkie, because Toyota was pleased to report that they sold just under 4,000 of the things in March this year, which, of course, is a good deal more than they sold in March 2020. It is an interesting exercise to cast one’s eyes back a little further, to March 2019, for a yardstick of some sort. To do so reveals that in that month in 2019, Toyota sold just more than 4,000 Hiluxes. So, is there actually a recovery in the motor sector?

There are reasons to feel some hope. New-car price inflation is unlikely to play much of a role in the coming months, and a global shortage of semiconductors – critical components in a car’s electronic control unit (ECU) – has led to some manufacturers battling to meet supply. This factor is hard to quantify, because it is the kind of story head offices like to bury, and getting a straight answer is all but impossible – but the upshot could be enduring demand in the months ahead as people wait for their cars.

Making predictions in this climate is a mug’s game; we’re one super-spreader event away from another economic meltdown. Political risk is real. The fascist toddlers from the Gupta/Zuma/RET/EFF faction of the ANC are having a tantrum after being asked to leave the sandpit and if President Cyril Ramaphosa cannot get on top of this internecine distraction, the consequences could be severe for the economy.

Yet, aside from a brief hiccough in the 1990s, South Africa hasn’t had a good government in 400 years and it would seem that buyers are coming out of the woodwork despite it. The Covid-19 crisis seems to have accelerated existing trends of automotive inequality: downsizing, simplification and choosing reliability and ease of ownership over all other factors, while the independently wealthy, the corporate elite and “irregular expenditure” types are still able to bother the good folk at the local Benz dealership.

The top side of the inequality dichotomy is that there is limited recovery visible in the luxury space, with BMW and Mercedes-Benz both posting better results, if not regaining their 2019 positions. Mercedes-Benz (1,295) seems to be enjoying the benefit of a range of new SUV products that has seen it continue to outrun archrivals BMW (1,169). The GLB, a compact family SUV, is probably offering the Stuttgart company a cost-competitive answer to BMW’s popular Rosslyn-built X3 that it has been lacking until now. Both brands are outselling Audi (554) more than two to one, with the latter’s best-selling unit being, of all things, a car – the under-rated A4 – rather than an SUV.

Toyota’s success reflects an industry-total bounce to figures that are a few clicks better than the month of March in 2019. The mix, of course, is interesting. The fact that one in four vehicles sold in March has a Toyota, Hino or Lexus badge on its snout tells you who’s buying – pragmatic fleet operators, companies and, yes, there is a return of a conservative-minded private buyer.

That more Volkswagen Polos, Polo Vivos, Toyota Starlets and Fortuners, Suzuki Swifts and Espressos, and Haval H1s have left showroom floors tells you that a bunged-up replacement cycle caused by the Covid-19 crisis is coughing back into life and that there are people out there with jobs who feel some confidence in their medium-term future.

Add to this good residuals on your used car as the demand for pre-loved wheels surges, low interest rates, highly motivated local head offices desperate to shift ageing stock before alarms start going off in their bosses’ inboxes and, for those with regular income, it really isn’t a bad time to replace a car.

The thing is, what are people buying? The downside of automotive inequality is the stonking growth of affordable brands. Suzuki’s success is well noted – they really do have the right products at the right time. Growth from 1,150 in March 2019 to 2,397 last month represents growth of almost 210%. Affordable Chinese brands are also cashing in: Haval sold 631 cars and SUVs in March 2019. Two years later, last month, it sold 1,526. That’s a growth of 241%.

Interestingly, Great Wall Motors sold 434 bakkies last month, outstripping the likes of Nissan, Mitsubishi and Volkswagen. It increased the sales of bakkies in two years from 118, an increase of more than 230%. Last month Toyota sold nearly 1,000 of the Suzuki Brezza-based Urban Cruisers and more than 700 Starlets, both affordable cars.

These extraordinary figures tell us a story that some of the big local manufacturers will not want to talk about – and that’s because they express the reality of the early stages of a developing crisis for some players in our domestic motor manufacturing industry. We build nice stuff here, but we can increasingly not afford our own product, just as some of our biggest export markets move away from internal combustion vehicles altogether.

There are other circumstantial hints that there is some life in the economy. Estate agents say they are busy with buyers as well as sellers (but they also said our 130m² erf in Cape Town was “expansive”, so receive it whence it comes). We know that SARS bled more out of the patient than it expected, principally on the back of busy agriculture and mining operations. This would certainly explain Toyota’s good bakkie sales. And Toyota’s sales and marketing boss, Leon Theron, has also gone on record with “cautious optimism” for the immediate future.

Like the farmers have done this summer in their Hiluxes, the industry will likely make some hay in passable sunshine. The long-term forecast, however, remains troubling. DM168

Alexander Parker is a journalist and consultant.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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