The 44-year old Director of NAAMSA, Michael Mabasa.
The 44-year old Director of NAAMSA, Michael Mabasa.
Image: Freddy Mavunda

The National Association of Automotive Manufacturers of South Africa (Naamsa)  recently appointed Michael Mabasa as its director, replacing Nico Vermeulen who retired. Phuti Mpyane sat down with him for a conversation about the organisation and how it will move forward.

Phuti Mpyane: Congratulations on your new position. If I can get right into it, what is Naamsa?

Michael Mabasa: Thank you. Essentially, Naamsa is made up by the heads of SA’s motor companies and its primary purpose is to represent the common interests of vehicle brands in relation to the SA, Africa and global markets. The organisation also acts as a go-between government and OEMs.

PM: What are these common interests?

MM: As they are separate business units, the 41 brands currently represented by Naamsa principally manufacture, assemble, import for sale or export vehicles to and from this market and others. They have a collective interest in running successful and effective automotive businesses in SA. Secondly, they are collectively responsible to SA where they must all act in accordance with this country’s industry rules and regulations and in line with many relevant stakeholder subsidiaries such as the Department of Trade & Industry (DTI) as well as other bodies such as the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS).

PM: As the new director at the helm, what do you bring to the fold and are there any pressing issues?

MM: Yes, plenty. My background is in the aviation sector and this is still a learning curve of the automotive industry. However, I intend to use the opportunity to head Naamsa to bring about much-needed change. The most pressing topic right now is the standardisation of some processes.   

PM: Are you referring to the nonreporting of monthly sales figures of some brands? If so, why is it imperative that they report and conversely, isn’t Naamsa infringing their rights to operate their businesses as they see fit?

MM: Yes, this is one of the issues. The brands are independent but uniformity and sorting out this particular matter is crucial for the interests of the local industry. The DTI is in constant negotiations with global markets to enhance the fortunes of SA’s vehicle manufacturing capacity, more so in line with the ambitions of the Automotive Master Plan 2035 which stipulates that by the year 2035 the local industry should be manufacturing no less than 1.4-million cars per annum. To make a good business case for this monumental task, the department needs all of the relevant information from all of the vehicle brands that are present in this country.    

PM: That’s quite an ambitious target considering that SA sells an average of 600,000 new cars per year. Worse still, that figure is dominated by imports rather than locally manufactured units. Is this a realistic pursuit?

MM: Admittedly, I can’t say outright if it will be reached. Neither can I say it’s impossible to accomplish the targeted figure. The automotive industry is among global sectors with the most rapid rates of change and we should be confident that the global trends and efficiencies will also touch on SA. The figure of 1.4-million cars produced locally is possible. The stipulation is to build that number of cars whether they are for local consumption, export or a mix of both.

Opportunities of expansion are opening in Africa and elsewhere in the world. We are competing with other automotive industries to supply markets with our locally produced cars and thus it’s imperative that we get all of the brands to play ball and be transparent about their operations. This will enhance the DTI’s prospects in landing more contracts to build cars and in turn help us achieve the master plan’s objectives which will have numerous trickle-down effects like job creation for this country’s citizens.    

PM: It’s quite a bold plan but does AMP2035 take into consideration the global move towards electrification, autonomous driving and new technologies in materials and even fluids? If for instance, the bulk of contracts on hand require the manufacture of electric cars, is the local manufacturing sector being readied for such an eventuality?

MM: Again, another vital cog into the bigger scheme of alignment. I am confident that should it find itself in this position, the local automotive industry will have a good reply to the gauntlet thrown at its feet. But we can’t simply use bold talk. We must be able to put it into action and there already exist avenues for a variety of solutions. Local manufacturing of parts, materials or fluids is already supplemented by procurement of raw materials from other markets but this brings me to the next set of issues that needs acceleration, which is the training of people to do a variety of specialised skills. This is paramount as is radical transformation of the industry as a whole. If we have the necessary skills, which we are trying to address with an idea to open a specialised training centre for mechanics, this new capacity and total transformation of the automotive industry will enable SA a better chance of attracting big investments, whether it’s for conventionally fuelled vehicles or for new age propulsion.

PM: Having touched on transformation, understandably your appointment is a small but significant step in the leadership transformation bid. What the views of Naamsa's top brass on transformation at the very top? In a nutshell, when can SA expect its first black CEO of a vehicle manufacturer?

MM: The industry as a whole needs to speed up transformation. Not only am I the first black director of Naamsa but I’m also the first full-time black African employee at the organisation since inception. What I can tell you in confidence is that the membership is aware and has acknowledged the need to transform the industry not only at the top level but at a number of levels. I can’t give you a definitive answer on the question of the appointment of a black CEO but be aware that the external parent companies hold the power to make that happen and they are very aware of this essential need to change.