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Feb 03, 2012

Is South African industry globally competitive?

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In our business, we deal with trade remedies and duty applications on a daily basis.

One lasting impression is that South African industry is tied into an enormous battle to be globally competitive. This view appears to be quite representative across a broad section of industries.

Severe challenges posed by imports, primarily (but not exclusively) from the Far East, are a reality. Our market is just another target market for companies producing enormous volumes and the extent of government subsidisation and support in some of these countries poses a real threat to local industry.

Against this backdrop, one would expect more frequent and more focused applica- tions for protection in the form of antidumping and countervailing duties. Yet many industries are just too fragmented to orchestrate a focused approach when applying for protection. At least, remedies are available to deal with dumped or subsidised imports and better communi- cation within industries can go a long way to ensuring that these remedies are properly exploited.

Of greater concern is the real possibility that our industries are just not competitive, even in a fair trade environment.

Our history entails a legacy of protection and a focus on being self-sufficient, stemming from the sanctions era. While we developed world-class technologies in areas ranging from defence to the chemicals industry and agriculture, very few of our major inventions and technological advances made it into the global arena in a big way.

In addition, our primary industries con- sist of only a handful of players established in an era where ‘sanction busting’ was the way to get into global markets. Many of these cornerstone industries are the ones most often applying for additional protection against imports.

Our most commonly recognised big indus- try that finds itself integrated into global supply chains is the automotive industry and this seems to be possible mainly as a result of substantial government support. While this may sound rather damning, it provides enormous insight. Most governments around the world support big industry in one way or another. Should our government not have more industry-focused programmes at the scale of the automotive industry programme?

With an enormous need for job creation, the current focus on support for small, medium-size and microenterprises (SMME) is both commendable and necessary. SMMEs are, however, exposed to global trends and unfair trade practices, with limited ability to withstand the rigours of the international market. While building an economy primarily on SMMEs may assist in job creation and provide greater social stability, it does little to integrate our industries into global supply chains, where production takes place with the benefit of real economies of scale.

To develop a globally competitive export industry, a substantial local market is often required. Even with the size of our population, our spending power on more than the most basic items is limited. For many industries, the benefit of having a significant local industry as a springboard just does not exist.

The common strategy of always seeing Africa as a primary market to develop that springboard into the global market is also flawed as most African markets are already importing at globally competitive prices, and obtaining market penetration is a lot more difficult than originally thought.

It should be clear that the stumbling blocks to South Africa becoming a global player are not only a lack of skills and perceived high electricity costs – the truth is we are behind the curve on global industrial development and challenges like skills shortages and a volatile currency are just secondary hurdles.

There appears to be only one answer – government and industry need to replicate what has been achieved in the automotive sector for other key industrial sectors, and this needs to be done with the same urgency and in parallel with the development of SMMEs.

Edited by: Martin Zhuwakinyu
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