The BMW plant in Rosslyn. Picture: MASI LOSI
The BMW plant in Rosslyn. Picture: MASI LOSI

BMW SA plans to resume exports next week to Europe, a market that accounts for over 70% of all local vehicles send abroad in 2019.  

The German-owned carmaker, which has not built vehicles at its Rosslyn, Tshwane plant since March 20, opened its body shop on Wednesday as the first step towards resumption of production.

BMW SA MD Tim Abbott, who is also president of the National Association of Automobile Manufacturers of SA (Naamsa), said Mercedes-Benz SA, Volkswagen SA (VW) and Toyota SA have all restarted vehicle assembly.

“I expect the others to be up and running by the end of May,” he said.

For now, motor companies and their components suppliers are limited to 50% of employees on site at one time. For BMW, that means a single daily shift, instead of the three in operation before the Covid-19 lockdown began.

Rosslyn stopped working at the same time as BMW plants across Europe, a week before SA’s own lockdown was imposed.

Abbott said Rosslyn, which builds the X3, would initially produce about 120 vehicles daily, instead of the usual 350. “We need to be flexible,” he said, adding that although the company’s export markets, mainly in Europe, are starting to reopen, “we are still in a volatile world and must respond accordingly”.

He declined to estimate how much production has been forfeited during the lockdown, but, since the plant will have lost 35 working days, the full daily 350 quota over that period would have amounted to 11,250 vehicles.

VW MD Thomas Schaefer said last week that the company had lost production of 16,000-17,000 cars.

Vehicle retail and distribution regulations, gazetted on Tuesday night, included easing the movement of vehicle imports and exports through SA ports.  

Last month, Justin Barnes, one of the main shapers of SA motor industry policy, described the Covid-19 response of government-controlled national transport facilitator Transnet and its harbours arm, Portnet, as “inconsistent, unclear, disorganised and generally ineffective”.

For years, the motor industry has complained about the inability of ports and railways to handle growing volumes of automotive goods. Abbott, whose company exports more than 90% of its production, said industry executives were assured last week by new Transnet CEO Portia Derby that the ports could handle resumed vehicle movements.  

Derby, former wife of disgraced former Transnet and Eskom CEO Brian Molefe, took on the job this year.

Said Abbot: “I’m not seeing any problems today, but even at the best of times, our ports are usually not very efficient. At our meeting, the CEO said they were ready. How ready we’ll find out next week.”