When I read Lael Bethlehem’s response to Peter Bruce I agreed with the heading but was stunned at the content (“Tariffs alone can never secure the long term health of an industry,” February 18). It is a long, vicious and at times very personal attack on Bruce's highly critical column on trade, industry and competition minister Ebrahim Patel, and certain aspects of our industrial policies (“Steel yourself for Ebrahim Patel’s price controls, a loser’s game,” February 10).

Kudos to BD for publishing this diatribe. Only when I reached Bethlehem’s credentials did I realise that there is a huge ideological divide present, and Bruce’s philosophies are anathema to the lady.

From my perspective I wish to restrict my comments to her poultry views. It seems that having facilitated Patel’s much heralded Poultry Master Plan has produced a poultry expert in Bethlehem. The plan itself has some really good pillars to it that deserve support from the wider poultry industry. However, it does show a distinct, and perhaps necessary, bias towards local poultry, whose growth is encouraged at the obvious cost to imports.

My view was that importers could have supported the plan in many respects, but signing it as is would be like turkeys voting for Christmas. They could have negotiated a few small changes that would have produced a more balanced outcome. Nevertheless, in her piece Bethlehem suggests SA proceeds to “unlock exports to regain a competitive position relative to large exporters like Brazil”.

This is utter nonsense for many reasons. Firstly, there is no competitive position to regain — we have never been in such a space. Where are we going to export all this poultry to? The US, Brazil, UK, Canada, China, Russia, Taiwan, Thailand, Argentina and Japan are all major producers and exporters, while the Australasian countries do not import poultry.

The EU is mentioned as a target but besides being the fourth largest poultry producing region in the world, we have been unable to obtain acceptable health certification for our chicken. Even if we can find a way around this, volumes will not be huge.

We do currently export poultry to some African and Middle East countries, but much of this is re-export of imported product. In addition, nearly all our frozen chicken is brined, and despite our excellent poultry manufacturing abilities nobody else wants brined chicken.

We simply cannot compete on price due to our well-known poor SA productivity, never-ending union issues, unreliable power and water supplies, poor transportation infrastructure and other administered costs. Costs of doing business in SA are high. We can certainly grow our exports, but this will be modest and can never replace production “lost” to imports.

Finally, I do agree that tariffs alone are not the answer, but I don’t see any other workable ideas in Bethlehem's article. They do exist, but aiming at high export growth is shooting in the wind. Meaningful growth can be achieved in our domestic markets.

David Wolpert

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