The South African commodity plastics filiere : history and future strategy options.
Crompton, Roderick de Brissac.
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The world chemical industry is one of the most basic and important manufacturing businesses globally. Petrochemicals have played a pivotal role in industrial modernisation. In the 1970s and 1980s South Africa developed an unusually large chemical industry as Import Substitution Industrialisation was conveniently extended into military/strategic apartheid policy. These policies steered the industry away from conventional crude oil and natural gas based feedstocks into a uniquely coal based chemical industry. The shift from oil to coal based petrochemicals also narrowed the slate of petrochemicals available. Pricing is critical in the commodity plastics filiere. Coal based production contributed to a higher cost structure than crude oil based producers and a 'missing link' in the production chain, the petrochemical intermediate naphtha. This facilitated the introduction of a pricing mechanism which concentrated the benefits amongst upstream producers at the expense of downstream plastic converters, stunting growth in this higher value added and more labour intensive sector. Ironically a 'sunk costs' approach and recent developments allow SASOL's to produce coal based petrochemicals at low cost. In a significant change the traditional pillars of the local chemical industry, agricultural and mining chemicals, were supplanted by plastic raw materials as the major sector of the industry during the 1980s despite its coal base. Trade patterns also reflect these developments. A significant shift in employment from blacks to whites in Industrial Chemicals and Refineries accompanied this reordering of the major sectors. Providing mass housing, electrification and other basic wage goods will require industrial policies, embracing the entire filiere, which are significantly different from previous policies. Such policies should facilitate the development of higher value added and more labour intensive sectors within a broadly conceived framework of redistribution of political and economic opportunity. This will require lowering chemical intermediate input costs as well as a range of nurturing and facilitative policies for the filiere. These will help to reduce the current anti-export bias. The process of implementing such policies is as important as the direction itself. To facilitate national reconciliation and empowerment of previously disadvantaged groups transparent tripartite policy making institutions are recommended.