Here’s why electric cars are not yet popular in South Africa

In 2023 electric cars accounted for just 0.16% of the overall market in South Africa. File picture: Audi.

In 2023 electric cars accounted for just 0.16% of the overall market in South Africa. File picture: Audi.

Published Apr 28, 2024


With petrol prices testing our sanity with each monthly hike, many South Africans have fantasised about putting an electric car (EV) in their driveway.

It would be the ultimate boycott. But in reality it’s not that simple, which is why only a handful of buyers are plugging into this trend.

In 2023 local sales of fully electric vehicles surged by 85% versus 2022, which sounds impressive until you consider the nominal increase was from 502 to 903 units, which is just 0.16% of the overall market.

These numbers will no doubt increase exponentially in the coming years, but that’s off an extremely small base.

Hybrids outshine full EVs on the New Energy Vehicle sales charts. Picture: Quotes Advisor.

2024 has so far ushered in a pair of more affordable electric cars, with more set to come from the likes of BYD, but these have hardly set the sales charts alight so far.

Consider that GWM sold just 17 examples of its new Ora 3 electric car between January and March, while the Volvo EX30 became Mzansi’s top selling EV with 82 sales.

Volvo’s XC40 Recharge topped the charts in 2023, according to Quotes Advisor, with 150 sales, followed by the BMW iX and iX3 (129 units each), Mini Cooper SE (96) and BMW iX1 (72).

But what is standing in the way of mass EV adoption in our nation?

Many South Africans are quick to scream “load shedding” but there are currently many more spokes in the wheel of our new energy vehicle market.

Chief among these is the cost of buying a new EV, and this is down to numerous factors. Even our most affordable battery model, the GWM Ora 3, is no cheapie at R686,950 for the base version and as great as Volvo’s new EX30 appears to be, getting one in your garage will take at least R775,900.

New Volvo EX30.

Research conducted by AutoTrader found that the average South African will only consider buying an EV if it costs less than R600,000.

But then why are these near silent buzzing machines so expensive? It’s mainly down to a combination of taxes and high battery prices.

EVs are currently slapped with a 25% import tax, which is higher than that applied to normal internal combustion engined (ICE) cars. It’s an old tax related to ‘luxury’ items like golf carts. Even so, government has not committed to lowering it in the near future as it seeks to buy more time to fix load shedding.

Of course, the R3.95 General Fuel Levy it ‘earns’ for every litre of fuel you put in your tank, pumping more than R80 billion into the fiscus each year according to Stats SA, is surely not something they’d want to let go of soon.

Alas, the government is in a bind, with many of our overseas export markets planning internal combustion car (ICE) sales bans in the 2030s, putting our ICE manufacturing industry at risk.

For that reason, SA’s White Paper on EVs seeks to incentivise the local production of battery vehicles starting in 2026, with local sales incentives only set to kick in during phase two later in the decade.

Taxes are the reason Tesla has yet to enter our market, as Elon Musk pointed out so clearly on his X platform earlier this year.

The high cost of current battery technology is also conspiring to keep EV prices on the steep side. According to Automotive News, a modern battery accounts for around 40% of the cost of producing an EV. But battery tech is constantly evolving. Cheaper LFP units are already infiltrating the market and many carmakers are hoping to revolutionise production costs with solid state batteries around the end of this decade.

Range anxiety remains a concern too, although many modern entrants are theoretically capable of covering 400km or more between charges, just not over long distances.

This brings us to the matter of charging infrastructure. Although not where it needs to be for mass EV adoption, GridCars currently has around 350 chargers installed around the country, while Zero Carbon Charge is slowly rolling out an nationwide network of solar powered rural chargers that will eventually be spaced at 150km intervals.

The proposed charging network of Zero Carbon Charge.

Speaking of solar, EV owners also need to know that plugging into Eskom’s dirty coal-dominated grid largely defeats the object of buying a battery car.

Michele Lupini, founder of The Auto Page and Cars in Action magazine, was among the first motoring media to champion “green” cars but today he feels other solutions could provide a better answer.

“Look, EVs certainly are an alternative. If you have solar on the roof at home. Do you? Thought not. So, EVs as the solution? Nope. Rather watch for e-fuels scavenged from the sky. And hydrogen. Both as a combustion source and a fuel cell element. Or answers we don’t know yet, for the real solution,” Lupini said.

“South Africa is not ready for EVs. Never will be,” he added.

Internationally many car companies are back pedalling on their EV investment plans as the market cools down. Ford, GM, Volkswagen, Jaguar Land Rover, among others, have all scaled down their EV plans recently.

But others, such as Volvo, are going all in, even in South Africa.

Felipe Yagi, marketing manager at Volvo Car SA, told IOL that the local division sees itself selling more EVs than ICE and hybrid vehicles by as early as 2026. He believes that by 2028 South Africa’s premium market as a whole will see significant EV volumes as battery technology and infrastructure improves.

Toyota is planning to launch its first EV, the bZ4X, in 2025.

But until a truly affordable battery car enters the market, EVs will remain a niche.

IOL Motoring