Toyota South Africa is here to stay, come hell or high water

Published Aug 17, 2022


By: Justin Jacobs

Durban - On 12 April 2022, the Toyota South Africa Motors Prospecton manufacturing plant just south of Durban was shut down. Devastating floods in the area brought not only water but fine clay-like mud, which covered just about every area of the plant.

Relentless and resilient, Toyota, its employees and the community stepped up and started cleaning as soon as they could. This week saw the plant reopen its manufacturing lines just a few months after the plant was shut. We were there.

The Call

What do you do when you get a call in the early hours of the morning informing you that one of the most important automotive manufacturing facilities in the Southern Hemisphere has been flooded? In some areas, the muddy water was a meter high, with vehicles both unfinished and fully built being submerged. Then there’s all the production lines, the conveyors, the electric controls, and most importantly, the workers, all now dealing with rising water levels.

Toyota South Africa Motors President and CEO Andrew Kirby made the call to shut it down and evacuate all staff. One of our country's biggest automotive manufacturing facilities, a cornerstone of our economy and an employer of some 7500 people, had been shut down.

With communication channels down, no electricity and no clean water, plant operators, engineers and the like assessed the damage as soon as it was secure to do so, and what they found was pure devastation. This, according to Kirby, was the worst ever damage caused by a natural disaster to one of Toyota’s global production facilities. The factory floor was covered in mud. Electronic equipment running every aspect of production had been damaged, cars, components, and even employee lockers had been submerged.

What looked to be the end of the road for Toyota South Africa Motors on the outside, behind closed doors, those who call the shots, the presidents and senior vice-presidents, CEOs and even Mr Akio Toyoda himself made one all important call, and that was that TSAM is here to stay. Production of the Hilux, Corolla Cross, Corolla Quest, the Hiace Ses’fikile and Fortuner would resume no matter the cost.

It would be easier to build a new plant than to fix this one, said Andrew Kirby. However, not only the obligation to the South African economy but to the people, customers and affiliated industries saw employees, suppliers and support form Japan come together with mops, rubber brooms, buckets and wheelbarrows and one of the biggest clean-up operations ensued.

Here are some quick facts that you need to know:

  • Most of the 87-hectare facility was flooded
  • Interestingly, it wasn't the rain that caused the main flooding but rather a result of the water being automatically released through the Shongweni Dam’s floodgates, breaching the Mlazi River banks on which the plant is situated.
  • Some 4 000 cars had to be written off as an end result.
  • Due to the shutdown and loss of parts 70 000 vehicles were not produced, at an average of R400 000 per vehicle, one can calculate the financial loss, which is in the billions.
  • Most importantly, while some employees lost around 30% of their income during the initial three-month shutdown, not a single employee lost their lives.

A global effort

We, the media, were given an opportunity to attend the ceremonial reopening of its Prospecton Plant in Durban, complete with a factory tour to see what was damaged and to hear about how it was fixed. The fine mud caused havoc with equipment, especially with the electronics. Teams were established to clean as much as they could using everything from circuit board cleaner to Sunlight Liquid and a toothbrush. While the local effort once again proved how resilient we South Africans are, it was the global support that resonated.

Japan unequivocally offered its support from the first phone call made. The first online meeting had some 250 people attend. Engineers were dispatched weekly to assist. When it came to the issue of a parts shortage, other markets such as Toyota UK, America and the like asked what was needed and started shipping vital parts so that production could begin as soon as possible. Export production was estimated to take 12 months, and the fact that it only took three months is beyond belief.

At the time of writing this, all production lines were up and running. Of the total quantity of 75 788 parts that were needed to restore the plant, 28 344 are still outstanding. While the plant is not running at max capacity, vehicles are leaving the factory floor, which has been improved.

Control modules have been lifted to prevent future damage if something like this were to happen again, some product lines have been streamlined for better efficiency, new paint has been applied to refresh some areas, and vehicle storage has also been re-invisioned. Furthermore, through the clean up process, employees got the opportunity to see exactly how each component works, which improves the understanding of the production process.

KZN has experienced a rough time these past few years. From Covid-19 to riots and now these floods. Companies and lives have been lost, yet we are resilient.

Toyota South Africa Motors stood in the face of complete destruction and refused to give in. Each day was a fight, from clearing mud out of the guest parking area to cleaning the most intricate elements on the production line. It is a story of determination, pride and passion, one which we hope resonates throughout our country.

Follow Justin Jacobs on Instagram @TheJustbin