Johannesburg - Alec Erwin, the trade and industry minister, yesterday found something good to say about the weak rand, when he suggested it had helped shield local firms from the icy winds of international competition.

He said it was decided even before the 1994 elections that the country`s high protectionist tariffs should be torn down.

However, far from local firms being thrown to the hungry crocodiles, they have received some cushioning, with the fall of the rand running parallel to tariff dismantlement.

He said though South Africa has proceeded with tariff reductions since 1994, ``in fact it is quite likely that the effective level of protection in the economy is not significantly different to what it was before, due to currency depreciation.

``In the early years, tariff reductions were real, but from then on the depreciating currency has largely meant that effective levels of protection have not changed as much - companies have had a relatively soft landing.``

He had a warning for those firms which had not responded to the challenges of globalisation.

``The trading patterns of the world are dramatically changing, and everyone is in competition with someone else. Businesses which have not adjusted by now, will go out of business.``

He said the government wanted to use the planned World Trade Organisation (WTO) to win a fairer deal for South African exporters.

He also attacked the US and Europe for propping up their inefficient farming sectors by $350 billion a year.

``They can`t have their cake and eat it,`` warned Erwin. ``They can`t talk about open markets and globalisation, except when it comes to South Africa.``

And Erwin insisted that these countries must agree to a reform of anti-dumping rules, which he said were ``abused`` by protectionist governments in the North. He also stressed the importance of forming alliances with other developing nations.