How VWSA is overcoming the odds to keep its local Polo plant in business

Picture: Mpumelelo Macu

Picture: Mpumelelo Macu

Published Jul 26, 2023


South Africa’s motor manufacturing industry plays a significant role in the country’s economy, contributing between five and seven percent of the Growth Domestic Product.

They play an even greater role in the regions they operate, providing employment, socio-economic involvement and infrastructure upgrades.

This is especially important for the Eastern Cape that has the largest concentration of automotive manufacturing in the country with Isuzu, Mercedes Benz, Ford’s Struandale engine plant and of course Volkswagen. The Eastern Cape OEM manufacturers also contributed 53.5 percent of the total 2022 passenger and light vehicle exports of 350 945 units with VW delivering 24.3 percent of that.

The VW Kariega plant is one of 121 plants in the global Volkswagen production network and has become a mainstay of the company since the first cars rolled off the line in 1949 and is currently responsible for the production of the Polo Vivo, Polo (including the GTI exclusively) for global export as well the MPI 1.4L and MPI 1.6L engines, of which almost 30 000 are forecast to be built this year.

VW South Africa is also in the process of a viability study and finalising plans to add an extra Internal Combustion Engine vehicle to the line, in the form of a small to medium SUV to start production in 2026. An announcement on this is expected in Q4 this year.

Over the last 10 years VWSA has invested R9.1-billion in the plant and its surroundings in various improvements and upgrades.

However it’s how they impact people’s lives that makes a real difference.

There are 4 000 people directly employed but more than 50 000 jobs in the broader supply chain and the industry as a whole impacts more that 900 000 people.

While the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro isn’t exactly a shining beacon of good governance the fact that VW is situated there and the municipality has degenerated to an almost farcical state of affairs is no fault of their own but when you look at what they contributed in 2022 it’s not entirely insignificant.

Picture: Mpumelelo Macu

There’s R3.024-billion in salaries, wages and benefits, R125.8-million for electricity, water and waste removal and R31.6-million in rates and taxes.

It’s ironic then that a mixture of forced alternatives and a genuine need to reduce carbon emissions at the plant is likely to have an impact on those figures with a stated aim of being a carbon neutral facility by 2030.

For reasons known to most of the world, electricity supply remains critical and when you’re trying to make and sell cars, blackouts and breakdowns have an enormous negative effect on production.

In an attempt to mitigate this VWSA have taken a critical look at how they operate, investing in energy efficient facilities in the Press Shop, Body Shop, Assembly facilities, Waxing Facility and converted 90 percent of lights to LED.

Furthermore real time load management has been implemented for non-essential equipment and non-production equipment.

In keeping with the green theme, they currently purchase 14MWh from PowerX solar and wind from around the country which crucially equates to 21 days per year of load shedding.

To further mitigate the lack of power, 2.3MW of solar has been installed at the plant adding an additional 12 days free from load shedding with further energy purchasing planned from Independent Power Producers.

So, that looks like energy is being taken care of, but like they say, that’s not all.

There’s still the not small matter of water.

Without going into too much detail but like many municipalities around the country water supply is at critical levels brought about by incompetence, lack of maintenance and upgrading and in the Eastern Cape’s case, exacerbated by the crippling drought.

In an attempt to bypass some of the erratic water supply issues VW have installed a 200kl (200 000 litre) rainwater engine plant with a fully automated distribution system that feeds the complete production related processes with further harvesting planned for the future.

It’s certainly not their core business by a long margin but water is life so an additional reverse osmosis system has been installed for the recycling of production wastewater and reuse in cooling towers and paint shop processes.

It’s funny but not in a laughing way, that when large corporations like Volkswagen talk about if and when they receive electricity and water South Africans don’t even raise an eyebrow but in reality these are considerations that global vehicle manufacturers will take into consideration when it comes to future investment.

These are some of the initial processes that Volkswagen have implemented with more to come but less obvious but aesthetically pleasing are green spaces.

Invasive plants have been removed and replaced by indigenous trees and shrubs, grass planted around the plant and lots of the ubiquitous and impressive CO2 gobbler, the Spekboom.

The VW Polo remains one of the most popular cars ever in South Africa and as consumers we merely look at the numbers, pricing or features but spare a thought too for the enormous amount of effort and challenges faced to put metal, plastic and rubber into a cohesive unit.


360-degree look at the Polo Vivo GT

360-degree look at the Polo Sedan

IOL Motoring