A visit to the forbidden factory

Gauteng Economic Development MEC wondering whether she can afford supper. (Pic from GGDA)

By John Fraser

I have just been on a factory tour…where we didn’t tour the factory.

The event was one of the run-up attractions ahead of next week’s Presidential Investment Conference, where despite corruption, power cuts, a hostile visa regime and uncontrolled crime, Cyril Ramaphosa is expected to announce he is still succeeding in attracting new companies to set up in SA.

Today’s event was organised by an arm of the Gauteng Government and involved a visit to the OR Tambo Special Economic Zone (SEZ), right next to the airport.

The factory we had been invited to tour belongs to In2Food, a facility that makes sandwiches, ready meals, soups, pizzas and a vast array of other fresh grub.  

It is large, the second-largest CO2 refrigeration facility in the world (whatever that means?)

It supplies Woolworths in SA, Britain’s M&S and customers in Australia and the Middle East.  Next stop the USA!    Export growth was slowed by Covid, but the aim is to really ramp up exports.

The media mob had the option of a ride to the event from the government’s communications HQ in Hatfield, Pretoria, but some of us wanted to make our own way there.   As any bank robber will tell you, it is always wise to plan for a speedy escape.

Arriving at the precinct of the SEZ, I queued for a while to get through security and was then directed to the factory, where the extremely hostile security guard barked at me to wait.

Eventually, I and a few other media visitors were directed to the reception.

The bloke who (almost) greeted us (and later turned out to be the factory manager) advised we were in the wrong place, and then sent us off to a building site…which was also the wrong place.

I phoned a Gauteng media minder, who eventually directed us back to the entrance to the factory – the first place I had gone to, and she then pitched up in a commuter taxi to collect us.

We were taken to the very plush offices of the SEZ, where it was easy to see that those in charge of procurement had not been watching the pennies, and were taken to a boardroom, where a briefing had already started.

No effort was made to welcome us or to recap what we had missed, but mercifully it was over quite soon.

The speaker whose address I had largely missed turned out to be MEC Tasneem Motara of the Gauteng Department of Economic Development.  This big cheese was also on our food factory tour. 

We were then shoehorned back in the taxi, and then driven back to – you guessed it – the factory reception.

The MEC, clearly being a more pampered guest, took her own chauffeur-driven limo between the two venues, thus avoiding the need to be squashed up close to any of the unwashed media.

On the way, when we got back to the entrance of the SEZ precinct, the security guard refused to allow us in, and our hosts were forced to get on the phone, while we waited, cramped and incredulous.

After a few minutes and frantic negotiation, the barrier went up and on we went.    Fort Knox had been penetrated!

Our Gauteng hosts had warned us how busy they all were at the factory, and how lucky we should feel that we were being admitted at all.    If the place has a red carpet, it must have been at the cleaners.    

Finally, inside a meeting room, we had a presentation by two food factory folk, including the bloke who had first misdirected me, and a few questions were allowed before the tour itself began.  We were shown a video of the factory’s operations, which was the closest we were to get to properly seeing them for ourselves.

I never did get the name of either of our hosts, which is fine, as they don’t seem like the jolly bunch I normally follow on Twitter.

We went nowhere near the factory floor but were allowed to peer down at it from windows in the upstairs offices and in the staff canteen.   We could also peer through into the food development lab, but no developing food samples were provided, and there was no insight into what they do and how or why they do it.   A shame. 

Then we were shown a range of the grub they make, but no samples, no insight into the logistics for getting this food from the factory to foreign supermarket shelves.    A newly developed Mexican ready meal for Woolworths was waved at us, but that was as much excitement as we experienced.

The reason for the media visit and our whistle-stop tour was that this factory had been subsidised by the SA taxpayer to the tune of R145 million, and the decision to build the factory had been announced at one of the President’s Investment Conferences.

This is clearly a welcome investment, directly employing more than 2 000 people and processing tonnes and tonnes of SA produce.

A few random numbers:  They can make 2 000 litres of soup an hour and can get through 40 tonnes of veg a day.  My dietician would be in rapture.  

They also process meat, bake bread, and make salads – and the video had shown them filleting fish. 

When the underwhelming factory tour (such as it was) had ended, we were all offered a sandwich, from the rather limited range they make for Woolworths.

What a revelation!  Succulent fillings, brilliantly fresh bread.  A far cry from the almost dried-out sandwiches I tend to find on the shelf of my local Woolworths. 

This begs a question:  this factory is half an hour’s drive from that store.   Why is Woolworths’ supply chain so dysfunctional that a truly impressive sandwich can deteriorate so noticeably between the factory where it is made and the store where it is sold?

I am not saying the sandwiches I buy at Woolies are awful or unsafe (a less diplomatic chap might suggest they are overpriced!) – but they are a far cry from the quality of the product I grabbed for lunch in the factory.

Just to check I was not mistaken I tried two different sandwiches – a chicken mayo and an egg mayo – both superb.  (On this occasion, the chicken came before the egg).

We were told that if we made yet another Toyota taxi trip back to the SEZ office, there would be more food on offer.  

The folk in the factory were seemingly too challenged or indifferent to showcase more than their sandwiches to this unruly media mob.  Or to graciously offer us a few takeaway samples of their goodies.   RIP PR.   

Having seen how the SEZ bunch had organised the tour, I decided to make my escape, mumbled my excuses and left, grabbing a short and cramped taxi trip from the reception to where my car was soaking up the sun.

I spent two years in corporate communications for a JSE-listed company and during that time, I had to organise several site visits, media briefings and other events.

They all required a lot of planning and immense effort.  It was bloody hard work.

I know how these things can and should be done, and, boy, was I underwhelmed today?

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