7 Apr 20

Why South Africa needs to get serious about EVs

EVs represent 0.009% of South Africa’s current vehicle park. That’s less than one in ten thousand. For the country’s automotive industry to remain competitive globally, and if South Africa wants to achieve its Paris Agreement goals, radical action is needed, a new report suggests. 

The report is called State of Electric Vehicles in South Africa. It is published by the national uYilo eMobility Programme, an agency set up by the South African government in 2013 to ‘enable, facilitate and mobilise’ electric mobility in the country.  

Not much progress has been made in the intervening years. As the report states, at the start of this year, there were just 574 plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) on the road in South Africa, and no more than 545 battery-electric vehicles (BEVs). Add to that a grand total of 4,924 hybrids.

Taking stock of the situation and arguing for faster progress, the report zooms in on four areas that it deems crucial for the success of EVs in South Africa. 

1. Air quality

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), more than 80% of the world’s population live in urban areas where air pollution exceeds its guidelines. The WHO estimates air pollution kills about 7 million people each year. 

A significant number of those victims must be South African, because its major cities rank relatively high on the Top 500 Carbon Footprints of World Cities, as devised by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology NTNU: Johannesburg (13th), Cape Town (pictured, 89th), Durban (102nd), Port Elizabeth (335th). 

South Africa’s air quality is adversely affected by the fact that fuel quality in the country is Euro 2, while many other countries are at Euro 5 or Euro 6 levels. Here are three ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transport in South Africa:

  • Transition from Euro 2 to Euro 6 fuel: -12%.
  • Transition to EVs, charged with the existing energy mix: -34%.
  • Transition to EVs, charged with a zero-carbon energy mix: -67%

2. Auto industry

In 2019, South Africa produced just under 632,000 vehicles. The automotive industry contributed 7% to GDP and employed more than 110,000 people. The country has strong ambitions to grow its manufacturing capacity: the South African Automotive Masterplan (SAAM), effective 2021, aims to achieve 1% of global vehicle production by 2035 and increase local content from 39% to 60%. 

Manufacturers include globally prominent OEMs such as BMW, VW and Mercedes Benz from Europe, Ford from the US and Toyota and Nissan from Asia. However, virtually the entire production consists of ‘classic’ petrol or diesel motorisations (i.e. internal combustion engines, or ICEs). The only exception is Mercedes Benz, which produces a PHEV version of the C Class in one of its plants. 

That is likely to pose a problem, as about 60% of South Africa’s auto production is destined for the European Union, where EVs are projected to become the preferred motorisation in the next few years. Yet the South African government is not offering incentives to transition away from manufacturing ICEs to EVs – even though the SAAM acknowledges that energy-efficient vehicles (which include EVs) will comprise 35% of the global market by 2040.

3. Imports 

Since South Africa lacks domestic production of PHEVs and BEVs, these vehicle types must be imported. And it’s not that the country lacks the willingness to do so. The first hybrid was imported into the country in 2005 – a Toyota Prius. The first BEV arrived in 2013 – a Nissan Leaf. And the first PHEV came ashore in 2015 – a BMW i8.

As mentioned above, the total number of BEVs and PHEVs on South Africa’s roads can be numbered in the hundreds each. The number of hybrids is less than 5,000. Those very low numbers are the result of significant tariff barriers – with a perverse twist. 

On vehicles imported from most of the world, South Africa levies a tariff of 25%. But Europe is South Africa’s main source of imported vehicles, and the tariff on ICEs from the Old Continent is 18%, while the tarif on EVs from Europe is… 25%. That adds another 7% to the tariff barrier on imported EVs. 

4. Government policy

To be fair, the import tariff is not the only thing giving prospective EV buyers pause for thought. South Africa is infrastructure-poor when it comes to EV charging. As of the end of 2019, the country had only 214 public charging stations. This is where a more active policy by the government, as in some European countries, could make a difference. 

However, such policy goals don’t have the prominence as they do in Europe. As a developing country, South Africa is putting most of its time and effort in what could be deemed more essential battles, against poverty and inequality. 

This also shows in South Africa’s lagging efforts to lower its greenhouse gas emissions, as per its commitments under the Paris Agreement (2015). Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific analysis, rates South Africa’s actions in this area ‘highly insufficient’. 

While the developed world’s focus on the electrification of mobility may seem like a luxury to countries elsewhere, and South Africa’s lack of progress in reducing its emissions and transforming its auto industry is understandable in that light, ultimately the failure to catch the EV wave risks decimating the country’s dynamic auto manufacturing industry – not to mention further damaging the health of its citizens. 

Image: Shutterstock

Authored by: Frank Jacobs