Recent technological advances notwithstanding, the internal combustion engine is here to stay.
And, with the latest massive fuel price increase just imposed on us, it’s not getting any cheaper to own a car.
The world is still a long way from adopting electric cars as standard, despite the best intentions of Elon Musk and others.
And private ownership of vehicles will remain – for now – despite the likes of Google predicting that with the advent of self-driving cars, we will simply call for one when we need to go somewhere.
The fuel price dictates the cost of many aspects of our lives, sometimes without us even realising it.
As it rises, it causes the means of production to climb, as well as the cost of logistics.
Food and consumer goods become more expensive, as does public transport.
And a rising cost of living means we have less to spend on other things, which slows down economic activity and ultimately drives inflation and joblessness.
It’s a vicious circle in which a country is easily trapped – and less easily liberated from.
South Africa is one of the most expensive places in the world to fill up, according to a global fuel price index by the financial newswire service Bloomberg, which compares prices, affordability and overall spend in 61 countries.
In fact, until 2016, we were the country where motorists spent the highest proportion of the average annual salary on petrol (Mexico overtook us in the April 2017 index).
We currently spend 3.3% of our salaries on fuel, which doesn’t sound too bad until you consider that Venezuelans’ salary spend on fuel is a mere 0.01%.
The affordability of our fuel is also problematic, with 5.98% of the average daily income of R237 being used to buy only a single litre of petrol. We rank 56th – sixth worst – on Bloomberg’s list there.
And we’re losing ground on price, too. Bloomberg says we have the 20th cheapest petrol in the world, which also doesn’t sound that bad, but we were in 16th position a year ago.
The past 10 years have seen the petrol price in South Africa more than double, from R6.43 to R15.73 inland and R15.24 at the coast.
This is largely due to two factors: the cost of crude oil, and the strength of the rand against the US dollar.
A weakening rand and an increasing oil price, both of which are the case right now, means it costs more to produce fuel – and so we can expect more price increases in the foreseeable future.
(As a fuel retailer, I can assure you that a rising petrol price increase doesn’t spell greater income for my company; the allocation I get out of the cost of a litre of fuel remains the same.)
As a motorist myself, I understand the need to contain the cost of getting around; I, too, think of ways to spend less on fuel.
Which leads me to the main point of this piece: apart from the fuel restrictions of the 1970s, when the oil embargo against apartheid South Africa bit hard, we’ve actually had an easy ride all along.
And it’s made us lazy. We continue to live our lifestyle of petrol, as we always have, and make little effort to curb our consumption even as we fret about the cost.
So what do I mean by “lifestyle of petrol”?
In short, it refers to our enduring love affair with, and dependence on, fossil fuels, which defines so much of how we live our lives.
Most of us – and here I mean adult, largely middle-class, employed (and even unemployed) South Africans – own our own vehicles; it’s almost a right for us to have our own cars.
Perish the thought of using public transport, unless of course the car’s in for a service, so we clog up our roads with single-passenger vehicles instead.
Check out the traffic when you’re next on your way to work or home, and see how many cars have only one occupant. Nearly all of them, I’ll wager.
So our roads become far more congested than they should be, it takes longer to get anywhere – and, of course, we all burn up more fuel standing still.
And yes, I know that public transport isn’t as good or convenient as it could be, but consider this: how much would it improve if more of us actually used it?
Many South Africans still regard big cars as status symbols, driving high-performance sedans to get from A to B, when a good hatchback will do. Picture: iStock
We’re also terribly lazy about short trips. For example, have you ever made yourself guilty of driving a few blocks down the road to the shop, when you could just as easily have walked there?
I know I have, and I’ll bet you have too.
And finally, while there are certainly a lot more fuel-efficient vehicles around today than there were in the 1970s, when fuel was restricted and South Africans were forced to drive at 50km/h on city roads and a less-than-blistering 80km/h on the highways, many of us still regard big cars as status symbols.
Must we drive high-performance sedans to get from A to B, when a good hatchback will do? Must Mom’s taxi really be an SUV, even though it never, ever goes off-road?
This is the lifestyle of petrol.
So why aren’t we ride sharing more? Why don’t we walk more? Why won’t we leave our cars at home and more readily use public transport? The answer to these questions is simple: fuel is still inexpensive enough for us not to deliberately change our abiding reliance on it.
According to the global fuel price comparison released this week by GlobalPetrolPrices.com, which tabulates fuel prices in dollar terms, it costs $1.15 for a litre of petrol in South Africa – slightly below the global average of $1.16.
Most of those countries where it’s cheaper are developing or oil-producing nations (and the US); those countries where it’s more expensive tend to be developed nations.
In Iceland and Hong Kong, the most expensive places for fuel, a litre costs $2.11. This is almost twice what it costs in South Africa.
The UK ($1.68), Sweden ($1.82) and the Netherlands ($1.92) aren’t much better – but in those countries and others, unlike here, the lifestyle of petrol isn’t so prevalent.
Many people don’t feel compelled to own a car and, in some cases, it’s not even practical to have one; for example, the cost of parking in London is prohibitive (that is, if you can find any).
So, even with the latest petrol price increase and considering the fact that we don’t particularly fare well on a global level around the cost of fuel, we’re not really feeling the pinch yet.
The South African lifestyle of petrol has a very long way to go before it becomes as unfashionable as carbs have to our diet.
From my perspective, that means business is good – and it will remain so for the foreseeable future.
• Ryno Strydom is director at Elegant Fuel