Mike Whitfield is the head of Nissan in Southern Africa. The company has an auto plant at Rosslyn, near Pretoria, where The Cape Messenger’s Associate Editor John Fraser chatted to him.
JF. What was your first car?
MW. It was a Datsun 149Y GX Coupe. I think it was yellow, and I got it cheap because no-one wanted a yellow car. I have never owned any other brand, although I briefly drove an Alfa when we distributed them.
JF. The government has an incentive support programme for the automotive industry. How has this programme worked?
MW. We have had a consistent government programme in different iterations. A long-term policy is vital. Without it, we would be like Australia, where the last automotive plant closed this week. The auto industry in South Africa is a big exporter. Direct and indirect employment is close to 80 000, and that’s excluding the dealers. Without this consistent policy, we would not be here. Why build here, and ship the vehicles 12 000km north – unless there is good reason to do so? Now we must build on this policy – grow volumes, introduce more localisation and jobs. The motor industry brings skills and good, sustainable jobs. Not entry-level jobs. The current programme may not have delivered the one million units which were the target, but without it, what would we be building? We would be like Australia.
JF. Do you accept the industry needs more BEE?
MW. If we operate in this country, we must play within the rules of this country. We need better stakeholder engagement. However, we do not need to do this through equity. The industry has a responsibility to support empowerment through various mechanisms. One thing we share publicly is a venture fund to develop black-owned businesses, particularly from our supplier base. We want to drive localisation and employment. However, with a global multinational manufacturing operation, it is not always viable to have local equity. Personally, I am committed to support and implement solutions.
JF. What is the attraction of Rosslyn?
MW. We are here historically. If you were to build an auto plant today, it is guaranteed it would be at a port at the coast. The structure of the automotive industry is more export-based. Rosslyn was part of the old apartheid era, and this was an industrial zone, with the infrastructure to locate here. In the early 1960s, nobody thought we in South Africa would be a good exporter.
JF. What then are the challenges with logistics?
MW. The primary focus is transport by rail and road, with exports through Durban and Coega. It is a big challenge. Logistics plays a big role in making us competitive. We need more competitive port charges.
JF. Do you enjoy driving?
MW. I love it. But I don’t enjoy the traffic.
JF. We already have electric cars. Are you surprised by the speed of change in your industry?
MW. The pace of change from what we know today – in terms of intelligent mobility – is due to exponential growth of new technology. Not just petrol to electricity, but also autonomous driving.
There are more collaborations between the OEMs (car giants) and IT businesses. We will see different ownership mechanisms, fractional ownership. Do you need to own a car? We still see Africa as the last frontier. The growth of the auto industry in SA will be through the expansion of the industry in sub-Saharan Africa.
JF. You need to win investment in competition with other Nissan plants around the world. What are the challenges in winning investment for South Africa?
MW. We operate in 40 to 50 countries in the world. They all have volatility and challenges, political and economic. We look for long-term stability and we understand the shorter spikes. We make investment decisions now for production to the end of 2020 to 2025. We look for more stability, and we understand the spikes. We are disappointed SA is not delivering on its potential. Today SA is the most attractive country in Africa for our type of investment. We look for stability and we do understand the short-term challenges.
JF. What annoys you most about other drivers?
MW. People sitting in the fast lane, using it to travel, instead of overtaking.
JF. Which driving rule or regulation would you overturn?
MW. A rule which needs to be applied more is dealing with people who are on their mobile phones while driving. This is a big contributor to road fatalities. The level of road fatalities in South Africa is totally inconceivable and unacceptable.