SEZ – Lessons for South Africa from international evidence and local experience

May 31, 2012 — Leave a comment

A bold paradigm shift in South Africa’s economic policy is required to ensure the success of the country’s new special economic zones (SEZs) programme, according to Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) executive director Ann Bernstein.At the launch of the new CDE report on SEZs, she explained that South Africa’s current economy favoured skill and capital-intensive industry, which was not making the cut in terms of job creation.

“South Africa needs to create the right kind of environment for the emergence of businesses that can employ large numbers of unskilled people. That is what we should use the SEZs to do.“This will require bold leadership and engagement with the difficult choices on labour costs and flexibility that must be made. The alternative is to waste resources and energy yet again on a policy that fails,” Bernstein urged.

The report, titled ‘Special Economic Zones: Lessons for South Africa from international evidence and local experience’ suggested that South Africa should establish at least two large SEZs that were focused on low-skill, labour-intensive industries such as the clothing and textile sectors and enable them to compete globally. “Without reform, the only way South African companies can compete with Chinese, Vietnamese and Indian companies is by mechanisation, which results in fewer people being employed, and a greater reliance on skills,” Bernstein pointed out. “International evidence shows that the most successful SEZs were public–private partnerships,” Bernstein noted. Further, the report showed, as recognised by government, that South Africa’s industrial development zones (IDZs) that include Coega, East London and Richards Bay, had largely failed to boost economic growth, create jobs, promote industrialisation or accelerate exports.

Bernstein attributed this to the lack of a clear definition for what these zones should entail, as well as a strategy for attracting investors. “The IDZs are basically just industrial parks – it’s no wonder they have not been successful in attracting new investors and creating jobs.” Although the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) had spent R5.3-billion on developing these zones, the vast majority of the 33 000 jobs created were short-term construction jobs, with only 5 000 permanent jobs created.

Bernstein said countries such as China, Costa Rica, Mauritius and Latin America countries could be viewed as benchmarks for South Africa in terms of IDZs. Rising costs in Asia, especially China, where labour-intensive firms were looking for new regional locations, were creating opportunities for IDZs in South Africa. The CDE argued that South Africa should seize the opportunity to compete for a sizable portion of the jobs that could sprout from this.

“A bold new SEZ strategy could become a platform for new companies and new investors that use unskilled labour rather than machines,” Bernstein indicated. “South Africa’s new SEZ programme needs to be a presidential priority. The DTI needs to be fully supported by all other departments of government. Unless the whole of government gets behind the effort, we’re not going to see the kind of investor uptake that would actually make a difference,” CDE research and programme director Antony Altbeker said. Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies is set to table the draft SEZ Bill in Parliament later this year, while Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan announced that R2.3-billion would be allocated to the establishment of SEZs were in the 2012/13 Budget.

However, the CDE’s report warned that the Bill provided no clarity about what would differentiate SEZs from industrial parks, its envisaged governance arrangements for SEZs was confusing and said the role of the private sector was unclear. Source: Engineering News

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