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The importance of the glass manufacturing industry in South Africa

building made of glass

Glass is one of the most ubiquitous inputs in multiple industries and used in many applications in automotive, architecture, food and beverages, cosmetics, electronics and robotics. It might be imperceptible, but glass production has experienced high rates of innovation.

Fibreglass is bringing high-speed internet to homes, and safety features in automotive glass save lives every day. This is well articulated in the WOW report on the manufacture of glass and glass products in South Africa. The importance of the glass industry cannot be understated given its contribution to job creation, economic activity and innovation. Glass also has a place in art and culture, as far back as the Middle Ages with artistic windows in cathedrals.

The role of SOEs in glass manufacturing

Unfortunately, the glass manufacturing industry in South Africa is perhaps a microcosm of how the government and its SOEs impede progress in local industries, contrary to our recent blog titled The third biggest SOE that is pioneering clean governance in South Africa, where you can read up on one of the few successful SOE’s in South Africa.

glass bottles

The country does not manufacture beads, particularly the small ones used in traditional regalia and artifacts, even though the establishment of a bead manufacturing business does not require high capital investment.

beads manufacturing

Electricity, an energy source for the energy-intensive manufacturing of beads, has now moved from among the cheapest to the most expensive in the world, with no abatement in sight, adding a level of difficulty to the manufacture of beads.

Eskom would not agree to subsidise the high energy costs of a new bead manufacturing business sponsored by one of the SOEs for this project to become sustainable. The project was a boost to the manufacturing industry and empowered unemployed women in the rural community of Giyani. Their leader had been sent for training in Japan and India to learn about beadmaking.

Glass manufacturing differentiation

south african beads manufacturing

Beads by themselves do not have high differentiation features. Differentiation is created in bead applications in fashion and jewellery, meaning that at manufacturing level, cost leadership outweighs differentiation as a sustainability strategy. With the high cost of electricity, and in the absence of a gas connection, the bead manufacturing project succumbed to cheaper imports, and South Africa, in the absence of industrial scale bead manufacturing, will continue to mostly consume imported beads.

Performance of the glass trade in South Africa

The WOW report on glass and glass product manufacture includes a graph, reproduced here, which points to great possibilities and opportunities for the industry. The government could do well to encourage and support this steadily-growing industry.

south african glass trade

What are the opportunities in the glass industry?

The glass industry will continue to embrace innovation and sustainability by continuously developing new products, technologies and processes. Advancing energy-efficient glazing systems, lightweight materials and recycled content contribute to resource conservation, environmental stewardship and carbon footprint reduction.

These benefits can only be realised by complementing private sector investment with the creation of many smaller-scale investments in different types of glass manufacturing plants, of which beads is a prime example, to create much more employment, uplift the marginalised and improve the trade balance.

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