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Achiever Ray was spot-on about economy

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What do Jewish achievers expect for 2014 and beyond…

 

Raymond Levin, KIA Motors South Africa’s CEO, shared the Jewish Report’s 2013 Absa Unlisted Company Award with The Creative Counsel’s Ran Neu-Ner and Gil Oved

 

In a wide-ranging interview with Jewish Report last week, Levin – who was also recently awarded his third annual Zenneth Club accolade – KIA Motors’ distributor of distinction which is awarded to 20 out of 169 international distributors – shared his views on:

  • The motor industry’s 2013 results, and predictions for 2014 and beyond;
  • The impact of the Jewish market on the KIA brand;
  • His take on the crucial R:$ exchange rate
  • The impact the forthcoming elections will have on the economy;
  • The secret of his success: emulating Man-U;
  • Industry realignment in SA and vehicle price predictions;
  • Building the world’s first 100 per cent green dealership;
  • The future of the motor industry in SA and globally;
  • The SA economy going forward; and much more.

 

The state of the SA vehicle market

 

In 2013 South African local vehicle sales were up 3,5 per cent to 650 000 units, says Levin. For 2014, he predicts that the new vehicle market will remain static at the same figure.

However, he says, in 2014 he envisages a major realignment in the industry. “Used cars’ values and sales will increase while the new car market will be fairly stagnant. People who are buying new are buying down,” he told SAJR Online last week.

 

Levin’s success secrets

 

A fanatical Manchester United supporter, Levin is pining as his team is taking a pounding under a new management team.

However, when asked what he attributes his success in business to, Levin draws an analogy between former Man-United manager Alex Ferguson and himself: “Continuity, a corps of people who are loyal and a team of players who are able to execute a dream of building a brand.”

 
 Ray hit it spot on

SA economy and currency

Ray Levin was initially interviewed by the SAJR on January 13. As if he had a crystal ball, he

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made the following statement: “The serious decline of the rand/dollar exchange rate over the latter half of 2013 was a serious challenge to dealers – both manufacturers and importers – in terms of pricing. The rand is down by 30 per cent in 14 months.”

Referring to pricing, he said: “In everything in life there is elasticity – and in my view nothing is going to change until mid-2014.”

He believes the elasticity in pricing in the A, B, and C-segment (entry and mid-entry sized vehicles) has almost been reached.

“We’ll probably see R12/$ before we see R9/$,” he says. This has resulted in the prices of all makes having to excessively increase their new car prices this year, both in locally manufactured and imported vehicles, says Levin. This, in turn, will create even more challenges for manufacturers and importers in how they price their products this year.

That prediction was spot on.

About interest rates he commented on January 13: “Fortunately, however, low interest rates will help housing and car prices. These current low interest rates that we have are assisting to help stimulate retail sales in the housing and car industries. However, as with all good things, the low interest rates will also come to an end.”

Again, he proved to be spot-on with the Reserve Bank having hiked interest rates by 0,5 per cent just this week.

Labour costs and stability are also important issues in this, he points out.

Of course those involved in the vehicle export sector reap the benefits of the weaker rand.

“SA consumers are finding increasing cost pressure,” says Levin, who questions whether the stated cost of living increase of six per cent is a true reflection of the inflation rate.

“Consumer debt has increased significantly, to 75 – 76 per cent per household.” And, while he says this rate is comparable with other countries, “the middle class is under severe pressure to sustain our economy.”

The Absa Unlisted Company award

 

Asked if winning the award had been important to him, Levin answered: “To say it was important to win, no! But to say it was a huge honour and mitzvah to be recognised by the judges and the Jewish community, was a huge honour. It was a special time for me.” He felt “blessed” to be recognised by his own community.

“I was bowled over, I was stunned, I never expected (to win) the award. You don’t work to receive acclaims and awards.”

 

How it all happened for Levin

 

He feels he was at the right place with the right skills and at the right time. When the KIA brand became available in SA some 15 years ago, he snapped it up. At that stage he was importing the larger taxis that were at the heart of the government’s since-failed attempt to redesign the SA taxi industry.

Over the past 15 years, he says, KIA worldwide has taken off – so much so that they have been unable to produce as many new vehicles as the market wants. The parent company was taken over by Hyundai some years ago and has been building factories all over the world.

As the brand grew in SA (they now sell between 25 000 and 27 000 new KIAs a year), Levin sold out to the Imperial Group and stayed on as CEO. By 2013 KIA Motors SA had three per cent of the SA market and 72 dealerships – 40 per cent of which are owned and operated by KIA Motors SA and many of the remaining dealerships are also corporate-owned by major retail groups like McCarthy Motor Group and Combined Motor Holding (CMH).

While KIA Motors SA has no immediate plans to open new outlets, Levin is a forward-thinker: “We have acquired properties,” he says, which will be developed when the time is right.

 

Green dealership

Levin is especially proud of having opened the world’s first 100 per cent green KIA dealership in 2013. It is solar powered and collects its own water. It is not even attached to the water or electricity grids, says Levin with pride.

 

PIC RIGHT: KIA Motors SA’s
100% green dealership in <<….>>

The worldwide growth in demand for the KIA brand has put the parent company in the enviable position that its worldwide manufacturing capacity has lagged behind demand for their products.

“We agree a quota a year in advance,” explains Levin and “as the ship docks, the stock is shipped out”. Although KIA has production plants all over the world, all vehicles imported into SA must, by law, meet the stringent EU standards which are followed by the SABS. As a result 99 per cent of KIA Motors SA’s imports originate in Korean and Slovakian plants.

The announcement of a new factory with a capacity of anywhere between 300 000 and 600 000 vehicles, will alleviate production concerns for the late twenty-teens.

Ray is tight-lipped about if or where the new plant will be built. “If it was me making the decision, I would look at Brazil, due to their high import taxation.” If the plant is planned to produce for the global market, says Levin, Indonesia or India would be good calls.

He does say, emphatically, that KIA will not be expanding its production capacity in Korea (where it turns out some 1,2 million vehicles annually from its plants) due to rising labour costs and increasing labour militancy.

 

Worldwide trends

 

Levin says all vehicle manufacturers globally are building smaller engines and building them better, making cars and engines lighter by making use of material advancement so that the weight of vehicles has come down while safety continues to improve. “The whole dynamic of the global market is turning,” he says.

KIA has four manufacturing plants in South Korea: Hwaseong; Sohari in Gwangmyeong; Gwangju; and Seosan.

Their international production facilities span the globe: Malaysia, Slovakia, China, Vietnam, Russia and the US.

 

SA Jewry’s strong support for KIA

Says Levin: “Largely through people like Clive Blechman (CEO of the huge Eastvaal Motor Group) and his organisation, the SA Jewish community are huge supporters of the KIA brand.

“King David School,” he adds, “has started looking like a KIA dealership when parents drop off and collect their kids!”

The release later this year of the new Sedona will once again give KIA a seven-seat variant which is always popular with larger Jewish families.

Levin is an eternal optimist. He says the forthcoming provincial and national elections could play a significant part in stimulating the economy, both in the pre-election and post-election phases.

 

The future of South Africa

 

What he finds “very encouraging in South Africa, is that we, as a nation, are maturing. We can discuss politics more openly and more maturely. We have seen the rise of new political parties.

“For me there is definitely no doubt that the future (of SA) is in good hands and that the legacy of Mandela will definitely play a part in the years to come.”

There will still be a rocky path that we will have to follow the next few years, he says, “but eventually we will resolve our differences and have a true democracy that upholds our Constitution – which is absolutely paramount to the success of the future of this country”.

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Mount Meron tragedy devastates South African family

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Yohanatan Hevroni was so excited about going to Mount Meron for Lag B’Omer after not having been there for seven years, he arranged a bus for his community to get there. This time, he went as a beloved husband and the father of three girls. He wouldn’t return alive.

The 27-year-old tzaddik who lived in Givat Shmuel in central Israel leaves behind his children and wife, Tanya Hevroni (nee Taback), who made aliyah with her family from Johannesburg in 1997.

Hevroni was one of the 45 people who died senselessly in a stampede at the annual Mount Meron Lag B’Omer celebrations on Thursday, 29 April, the largest peacetime tragedy in Israel’s existence.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from the shiva house on Tuesday, 4 May, Tanya’s brother, Eitan Taback, described how events unfolded.

“A rabbi told us that on the way there, Yohanatan said how amazing it was to see the influence a tzaddik had after he had died [referring to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, whose life is celebrated by thousands on Lag B’Omer at Mount Meron]. And after Yohanatan passed, we saw the amount of influence he had on everyone around him – the children he taught, people with whom he learned Torah.

“At 03:00 on Thursday night, Yohanatan’s mother got a phone call from his phone,” said Taback. “They said ‘his phone had been found in Meron, but we can’t find him’. Immediately, search parties were sent to hospitals and Meron itself. No one had any answers. After searching everywhere, they decided, with heavy hearts, to check the morgue, and that’s where they found him.”

Kalanit Taub, a volunteer emergency medical worker with United Hatzalah of Israel, described the devastation she encountered at the scene. “We saw stretcher after stretcher coming up the hill, with people performing CPR on them as they were running. I just saw bodies lying on the ground to my left and right. They all looked completely whole, completely fine, no broken bones, no blood. When we learned about [dealing with] a mass casualty incident, the first thing you’re supposed to do is treat the injured because those are the ones you’re more likely to save. But I didn’t see anyone injured. All I saw was people who weren’t breathing, who didn’t have a heartbeat. I thought, ‘Where are the injured people? Everywhere you look, everybody’s dead!’

“There was nothing we could do for any of them, we all tried our hardest, and we were completely unsuccessful,” she said. “The line of bodies kept getting longer and longer. Within seconds, they were out of body bags. We were taking thermal blankets to cover these people. And then we were out of thermal blankets. We didn’t have anything to cover the bodies with. There were just too many of them.”

Taub is also a member of the psycho-trauma unit. “I walked up the hill, and there were so many people in shock. People screaming hysterically, staring into space, and lying on the ground in foetal positions, unresponsive. I probably treated a hundred psycho-trauma patients. Meanwhile, [community emergency response team] ZAKA set up a tent that became the station where all the lost kids went. They were just naming kids one after the other separated from their parents. But not all were reunited because some of those parents died.”

By a miracle, Hevroni’s family managed to arrange his funeral for that day at 17:00. Because it was just before Shabbat, they expected few people to attend. But thousands arrived to pay their respects.

“The extent of his impact on people was so clear,” said Taback. “One rabbi bought a book of poems that Yohanatan wrote. They were about the simple things in life, and recognising the good in all other human beings. One of his students shared how he came to learn with Yohanatan and be inspired by him, but after their lesson, it was Yohanatan who told his student that he was inspiring.”

He described his brother-in-law as a “quiet guy, with a gentle soul, who always had a huge smile on his face”. He and Tanya married in Israel and went on to have three daughters, aged six, four, and two. They celebrated their eldest daughter’s sixth birthday a few days before the tragedy. “It would be the last celebration we would have together. There was so much happiness,” Taback said.

Two years ago, the family faced a major crisis when Tanya was diagnosed with cancer. “Yohanatan was there the whole time. He was a full-time father and mother. Now it’s the other way around. Tanya will have to be both the mother and the father.”

He said his parents, Ofra and David Taback, have been by his sister’s side from the moment they heard that Yohanatan was missing. “My parents are strong. They’re trying to be there for Tanya and the family. They’ve been here night and day.” Family around the world have joined in their grief.

Taback said his sister is devastated, but the support of the community had helped tremendously. “One thing we can take from this is that the Jewish nation will always unite in these situations. We must be there, one for each other, as brothers and sisters are meant to be,” said Taback. “Just be good to each other. We don’t need to wait for disasters to unite us. As the Jewish people, that’s who we are.”

Meanwhile, young South Africans on a gap year in Israel said the disaster had hit close to home. Many of their contemporaries attended the celebrations at Mount Meron. Dean Chaitowitz, who is at Yeshiva Eretz HaTzvi in Jerusalem, said he would have been there if enough boys from his yeshiva wanted to go.

“It wasn’t an official yeshiva trip, but they said that if there are enough kids, they’ll organise a bus to go. I’m trying to absorb as much of Israel as possible on my gap year, so I wanted to go. But in the end, there wasn’t enough of a demand. I was upset that I didn’t go, but when we found out what happened, I was shocked. I could easily have been there; our whole group would have gone. Hearing about yeshiva boys getting killed really hit hard, just knowing that it could literally have been any of us.”

Dani Sack who studying is at the Midreshet HaRova seminary in Jerusalem, said, “My group wasn’t going to go to Meron, but hearing about the tragedy nonetheless was a huge shock to the system, especially since some of our friends were planning to go.

“It was jarring considering we’d been so close to Meron, and also celebrated with dancing and singing that night. The fact that so many of those wounded and killed were young people put into perspective the magnitude of what a gap year entails. Being away from family is scary enough, but to think that a simple celebration on Lag B’Omer could turn deadly is terrifying.

“At Midreshet HaRova, we sang and said tehillim at the Kotel in honour of those who were killed. All the Torah we learned on Sunday was l’iluy nishmat [for the elevation of the soul] of the 45 we lost. In Israel, the mood over Shabbos and the weekend was solemn. You could feel the loss in the air. It’s really surreal being here during this moment, something that the Jewish national will remember forever.”

To support the family of the late Yohanatan Hevroni, please visit: https://givechak.co.il/yeonatan/en

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Emotions run high as JSC denies discrimination

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The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) has called for a face-to-face meeting with the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) to resolve tensions following the recent JSC interviews of Jewish judges, which the Board described as discriminatory.

The JSC this week denied that its interviews of Jewish candidates for appointment to the Bench were discriminatory and anti-constitutional. It said it was “factually incorrect” to say that Jewish applicants were targeted at interviews.

The Board told the SA Jewish Report on Wednesday, 5 May, that this week’s JSC statement was “unfortunate”.

Said National Director Wendy Kahn, “The SAJBD had already requested a meeting with the JSC prior to it issuing this statement. Notwithstanding the JSC’s denial this week that it had done anything wrong, we believe that the nature of the questions put to the candidates was irregular and discriminatory, and as such, in conflict with the fundamental constitutional right of all South Africans to equality and freedom of belief and association. It’s unfortunate to politicise such an august body.”

She said the Board continued to call for a face-to-face meeting with the JSC as it believed it was a “more constructive way” to address issues than through the media.

In recent weeks, the SAJBD accused the JSC of targeting Advocate Lawrence Lever and Judge David Unterhalter when they were asked questions about their Jewish identity and practice. It also described the JSC’s questioning of both men as “discriminatory and anti-constitutional”.

In a statement last week, Kahn said, “Advocate Lawrence Lever and Judge David Unterhalter were subjected to questions pertaining to their Jewish identity while no other candidates were subjected to offensive religious scrutiny. Advocate Lever was asked about his level of religious observance, specifically whether he observes Shabbat. It was made clear that this observance would be problematic for his appointment.

“It should also be noted that no other candidate was questioned on their religious practice except those of the Jewish faith. Christian candidates weren’t asked about working on Christmas, nor were Muslim candidates asked about working on Friday afternoons or Eid. It’s also extremely disturbing that questions posed to both Advocate Lever and Judge Unterhalter focused extensively on their possible association with the Board.

“Equally concerning were questions posed to the two Jewish candidates regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Kahn. “Both were questioned on their stance on the two-state solution. It’s difficult to understand how a conflict of this nature has intruded into this forum. No Muslim candidates were questioned on the issue.”

In response, the JSC said this Tuesday that the SAJBD was selectively quoting parts of the interviews.

It rejected claims that no other candidate was questioned on their religious practices except those of the Jewish faith. It also labelled the claims by the SAJBD as factually inaccurate.

“The questions relating to the association with the SAJBD dealt with concerns that the organisation supports Zionism which is viewed as a discriminatory form of nationalism and potentially in conflict with the values contained in the South African Constitution,” read the statement.

“The questions on this score were raised with the two candidates following letters of objection received by the JSC in respect of Judge Unterhalter from various organisations, including the Black Lawyers Association. This is part of JSC practice intended to afford candidates the opportunity to respond to objections lodged against their candidature.”

The statement continued, “It’s not factually correct that other candidates who aren’t of Jewish descent weren’t asked questions related to their religious affiliations.” There were other candidates who were asked questions relating to their religious or cultural beliefs, the statement said.

Said Advocate Mark Oppenheimer, “After watching Judge Unterhalter’s interview, it’s striking how many questions were about his brief stint at the SAJBD and how few questions were about his qualifications. The ratio indicates a failure on the JSC’s behalf to ask pertinent questions about his ability to hold judicial office. The volume and repetition of questions about the Board should be of concern to all South Africans who care about the important attributes of those who take up office at the highest court in the land.”

Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein expressed outrage at the “conduct of the commissioners of the [JSC] in their questioning of the two Jewish judges”, describing it as “racist and antisemitic in effect, if not in intention”.

He called on JSC commissioners to retract and apologise for their comments. He also called on President Cyril Ramaphosa to return the list to the JSC as the Constitution allows him to do on the grounds that aspects of the hearing exhibited discriminatory questions which cast a shadow on the entire process.

The JSC recommended Lever for a vacant position in the Northern Cape. The JSC also recommended lawyer Norman Manoim for a vacancy on the Gauteng High Court Bench. Both have been referred to President Cyril Ramaphosa for appointment. Unterhalter didn’t make the final list of nominees.

Meanwhile, the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution is reportedly considering legal options regarding the recent interviews by the JSC for appointment to the Constitutional Court.

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Israel travel ban leaves SA olim high and dry

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On Monday, Israel implemented a ban on its citizens travelling to South Africa, Ukraine, Ethiopia, Brazil, India, Mexico, and Turkey amidst fears of COVID-19 variants. But the ruling has left many South African olim angry and frustrated, with one saying she felt like she was being “held hostage”.

“This affects all of us. We all miss our families desperately,” says Sarah Spiro.

“I was supposed to fly on Saturday night to spend time with my very ill father,” says Robbie Singer. “I asked his physician to give me a motivating letter to present to the special committee but he said he couldn’t do that because he’s very ill, but not dying. He has been very ill for the past six years. He needs surgery in the next few weeks. I’m anxious and frustrated.”

Another South African in Israel, speaking on condition of anonymity, says, “My son and daughter were due to fly on 5 May. My father is terminally ill and, by the looks of things, doesn’t have much time left. My kids are extremely close to their grandfather, and it was important for them to see him. In addition, their dad lives in South Africa, and they haven’t seen him in 18 months or more. This was all explained in a letter submitted to the panel that decides on exceptional cases, but they were told theirs doesn’t qualify. I know it’s for the best – truly I do – but it’s devastating.”

Another South African who didn’t want to be named says, “Both of my parents are sick with COVID-19, and my application to travel to South Africa to be with them was denied. They said it didn’t meet urgent humanitarian needs.”

“My son, 18, is finishing his final year of school in Israel. I haven’t seen him since August last year when he returned to Israel after the initial lockdown,” says a South African mother who didn’t want to be named. “We’re missing so many milestones. He will more than likely be moving into a lone soldiers’ apartment while he waits to hear when he will enlist in the army. We were planning for him to visit us in July. We can’t travel there as we’re not vaccinated at this point. I’m devastated to be honest.”

For many South African olim, this is just one of many travel bans that have had an impact on their lives, families, and businesses over the past year. “My husband travels regularly back and forth to South Africa for work. The travel bans have had a serious impact on our financials,” says one woman who wants to remain anonymous. “My mother had a ticket booked to come and visit us and see her four grandchildren in August 2020, but due to corona[virus] it wasn’t possible. These travel bans are keeping us from earning an income and denying us our families.”

“My business is in South Africa, and I can’t travel due to the restrictions,” says Steve Zeff. “We have had to restructure roles within the company in order to continue. It’s frustrating because my business is based on trust and reputation. It’s a legal and technical minefield. But I can’t physically get in front of clients, and Zoom and Google Teams isn’t always ideal.”

“The draconian Israeli travel restriction was received with a great deal of dismay and, in some families, profound distress,” says local expert Professor Barry Schoub, the chairperson of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19 vaccines. “Why, with Israel’s world-beating vaccination programme is the country closing down instead of opening up? Why South Africa, where COVID-19 numbers are relatively low?

“To understand these severe measures, one has to appreciate why South Africa could threaten Israel’s hard-won achievement. It’s unfortunate that South Africa is the global epicentre of one of the most serious coronavirus variants of concern – the variant B.1.351 – possibly the most resistant of all the variants to vaccine-induced immunity,” Schoub says. “It’s true that the Pfizer vaccine used throughout Israel is effective against the variant. It’s also true that the travel screening precautions and quarantine regulations would greatly reduce, but not eliminate, the risk of B.1.351 being imported into the country.

“However, B.1.351 currently comprises only a tiny and insignificant percentage of virus strains in Israel. The country’s economy is opening up, and life is returning to normal. Israel’s public health authorities could now ill-afford for these hard-won gains to be imperilled by the circulation of the most problematic of the viral variants imported from travel from South Africa. They have therefore deemed that only under the most extreme of humanitarian circumstances may any exceptions be made.”

Says Liat Amar Arran of the Israel Centre: “It’s not political … it’s an epidemiological decision.” She explains that the skies are still open to Israelis and olim travelling from these countries who will be required to isolate for 10 to 14 days on their return, depending on their COVID-19 test results. The rule applies to those who have been vaccinated and those who haven’t. The decision is being re-assessed on a daily basis. The government has said it will announce new information on 16 May.

“It definitely hasn’t been easy on the South African Jewish community,” she says. “There has been so much pressure on people needing to travel, and a lot of requests for help. We and other communal organisations are fighting to help the community, as we know its members are the ones who suffer the most from this decision. We are talking to COVID-19 headquarters in Israel, building a relationship, and sharing data with them. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes. There are many who want to travel for simchas, or people who are desperate to see their families. One can request a visit on humanitarian grounds, but only in extreme situations.”

Deputy Israeli Ambassador to South Africa Hila Rose Fridman echoes these sentiments, saying the embassy has even consulted local experts to engage with Israel’s COVID-19 committee. “But South African experts can’t argue otherwise. They don’t think there is a basis to change Israel’s decision.”

Fridman says Israel takes into account many factors when considering exceptions to the travel ban. She knows people are struggling with the ban, “which is why the embassy has decided to host a webinar answering consular questions this upcoming Sunday, 9 May, at 20:00. More information can be found on the embassy’s website and Facebook page, ‘Israel in South Africa’.”

A glimmer of light in the situation is that aliyah flights are still allowed. “We have a flight of 27 South African olim going on 8 May after Shabbat,” says Amar Arran. “It was meant to go at 21:30, but we requested that it be moved an hour later so that those who are shomrei Shabbos have a little more time. This will be the first and last El Al flight for now. Another 30 olim were supposed to go on 22 May, but El Al cancelled that flight, so we will try to arrange it with another airline. Olim include youth, the elderly, couples, and families.”

Roz Bukris, El Al general manager of southern and eastern Africa, says, “We want our passengers to understand that we do care for them in spite of the challenges we are facing. We wanted to avoid disappointment as we have been trying to get flights here since January, but circumstances beyond our control have forced us to cancel.

“Unfortunately, one doesn’t know what the next day will bring. We hope to resume on 3 June from Tel Aviv and 5 June from Johannesburg. However this all depends on the Israeli government’s decisions regarding the South African variant.”

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