A quick fix

I just want to help, Trevor

Finweek English Edition - - Openers - FRIK ELS

THE WORST JAN­UARY in eight years. The big­gest drop since 1984. A mar­ket that’s half the size it was just two years ago. Makes me feel ter­ri­bly guilty I’ve con­trib­uted to the dis­mal state of the South African ve­hi­cle in­dus­try or – as some are call­ing it – the car­poca­lypse.

I haven’t bought a new car in eight years. Eight long years. I’m ac­tu­ally ashamed to say it, but it makes me feel as if I’m not a proper South African. We’re a car-mad coun­try. How else can you ex­plain 5 000 peo­ple turn­ing up night af­ter night pay­ing in ex­cess of R200 to have an ar­ro­gant English­man make them feel in­se­cure about their ride. (Jeremy Clark­son must be the only guy in­volved in the car in­dus­try still rak­ing it in.)

Our love of the au­to­mo­bile may have been born out of ne­ces­sity – dodgy trains and even dodgier taxis – but it was never pure in­ven­tion. In other mar­kets, maybe. Take the trend to­wards buy­ing large of­froad­ers. In the whole of Europe, Ja­pan and the parts of the United States sans wide-open spa­ces buy­ing some­thing the size of a barn and the ground clear­ance of an ele­phant just doesn’t make sense. The Chelsea Trac­tor and the Man­hat­tan Meg­amo­bile is right­fully ma­ligned as overkill.

But South African cities are never more than an hour away from the bundu. And dur­ing the Jo­han­nes­burg mon­soon we’re cur­rently ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the bundu and the donga are con­fronted dur­ing the daily com­mute. The sports and util­ity in SUV have some mean­ing in SA. And yet car­bon cred­its and tax breaks for ditch­ing your SUV or 300kW racer are now be­ing mooted for Trevor Manuel’s Bud­get. Good in­ten­tions, surely, but the road to hell is paved with it. And our paved roads are from hell.

In what­ever form – bridg­ing fi­nance, bailouts, sub­si­dies, guar­an­tees – SA’s man­u­fac­tur­ers and com­po­nent sup­pli­ers are go­ing to need some sort of Gov­ern­ment as­sis­tance. Help may be on its way. I’ve no prob­lem with that. It will, of course, open the flood­gates for other suf­fer­ing in­dus­tries to do the same, as is hap­pen­ing in the US.

Again, I’ve no prob­lem – not since Larry Flynt, pub­lisher of Hustler, also ap­proached the US fed­eral gov­ern­ment for $5bn to help the adult en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try through hard times. Or should that be over­com­ing a soft mar­ket? (Just an­other ex­am­ple of how in many male minds cars and girls are in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked.)

Speak­ing of stim­u­lus pack­ages, I be­lieve Manuel should go be­yond as­sist­ing the man­u­fac­tur­ers and in­clude deal­er­ships and cus­tomers. We should go straight to the heart of the prob­lem and pro­vide a quick fix. I – like so many oth­ers who drive pre-9/11 and MP3-com­pat­i­ble ve­hi­cles – should be forced to re­place them.

The sit­u­a­tion in show­rooms is now so dire that you can get a R20 000 cash­back of­fer on a car that re­tails for less than R80 000 or a guar­an­tee that when you’re laid off they’ll take it back. How about Gov­ern­ment stump­ing up some of that cash? It’s two birds with one stone: cash flows into the sys­tem to be spent on other things (our own adult en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try isn’t do­ing so well ei­ther, I un­der­stand) and the mo­tor in­dus­try and the lenders get an im­me­di­ate boost.

How such a scheme could be made to work I leave the banks to fig­ure out. Af­ter all, it’s the fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions that cre­ated the col­lat­er­alised debt obli­ga­tions and other com­plex in­stru­ments that got us into the mess in the first place.

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