Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, “The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses - behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights” This quote from arguably the best boxer in history, Muhammad Ali, speaks forcefully to the power of preparation. It reminds us that in order to build a house you have to go through the process brick by brick. This quote reminds us too that to build the grandest castle requires of us to get the basics right. Building a successful economy is no different.
So, it is often what happens outside the public eye, the things that receive very little media attention, that are precisely what is important to building a strong economy. One such area of economic importance is the technical infrastructure and it is for that reason that I have particular pleasure in welcoming you to the launch of the National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications.
This launch is also important because it represents another milestone and concrete achievement emanating from the strategy developed and implemented by the dti during the past few years to modernise the South African Technical Infrastructure. This strategy was developed because we recognised that the quality of technical infrastructure resources was becoming increasingly important in shaping the trading opportunities for South Africa. We understood that we had to act quickly to anticipate future developments rather than to eventually become overwhelmed by them.
The basis for our preparation was based on the understanding that the technical infrastructure underpins trade and business as well as the health and safety of the environment and our citizens. So, standards developed by the South African Bureau of Standards, metrology provided by the National Metrology Institute of South Africa and accreditation of conformity assessment services such as product certification, testing laboratories, inspection and calibration services of the South African Accreditation System support the compatibility amongst products and systems. These standards also reduce costs through use of common parts, specifications and methods. In summary, standards may not hog the headlights but they are critical to the growth of our economy.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is more so since our economy has become increasingly integrated into value chains that produce goods assembled from components sourced worldwide. These components must be perfectly synchronised and needless to say they must work perfectly or the business will be in danger of failing. In addition, product life cycles are becoming shorter and the pace of technological development is accelerating. Consumers are demanding ever-higher levels of safety, performance, reliability and sustainability. In response to these demands, governments and their regulators the world over are adopting various approaches when imposing technical regulations.
These technical regulations involve product standards, conformity assessment such as product certification, testing and inspection, pre or post market requirements as well as sanctions if the products fail to meet the technical regulation. However, as a result of the multiplicity of approaches used by governments and their regulators it is difficult for companies, and most commonly, companies from developing countries, to meet requirements in both the domestic and the export market unless governments continue to make their national technical infrastructure system more responsive. In other words, if we do not meet the technical standards being set internationally, we will be constrained in our trade. On the contrary, our companies can increase their participation in the global economy if the necessary underlying institutional framework is available to them. And this means that modern technical infrastructure allows new industries to be created; it supports industrial development and facilitates market access.
We therefore had to prepare, we had to act and act efficiently, to ensure that our products would continue to compete internationally. In practice this meant embarking on a programme of legislative reform that was completed in 2008 and resulted in the promulgation of four Acts:
The Standards Act, Act 8 of 2008,
The National Measurement Unit and Measurement Standards Act, Act 18 of 2006,
The Accreditation for Conformity Assessment, Calibration and Good Laboratory Practice Act, 2006 Act No. 19 of 2006
And the National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications Act, Act 5 of 2008.
The next stage involved putting meat on the bone, so to speak. And a little more than a year ago, the South African National Accreditation System (SANAS) and the National Metrology Institute of South Africa (NMISA) were launched. These institutions, together with the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) are responsible for accreditation, metrology and standards, which together, constitutes the South African Technical Infrastructure. Allied to this, the new Standards Act, Act 8 of 2008, which was also enacted on 1 September 2008, allows for the continuance of a reconstituted SABS, focusing its mandate on being the peak standards organisation in South Africa and providing related conformity assessment services.
I think it is to the credit of all involved that the promulgation of all four Acts now concludes the modernisation of the South African Standards, Quality Assurance, and Accreditation and Metrology “SQAM” system that started more than seven years ago. Now there may a view that perhaps we have taken too long to reach this point. But there is also a saying that teaches us that “it is wise to take your time than to pursue something that is half-cooked”.
And I think it is precisely because we have prepared thoroughly that these institutions are now able to closely align their work with national priorities such as those contained in the National Industrial Policy Framework. For example, the South African Bureau of Standards developed standards for the Business Process Outsourcing sector; the National Metrology Institute of South Africa is providing measurement traceability to sectors such as biofuels and chemicals, whilst the South African National Accreditation System provides accreditation to BEE verification agencies.
In fact, it is precisely because we have embarked on this journey of modernizing our technical infrastructure we are also able to respond to all manner of developments in our economy. So even today, as the adverse effects of the global economic crisis and its impact confront us all, a critical part of our response is going to be the need to improve the competitiveness and performance of key local industries, particularly vulnerable sectors and of small businesses. However, whilst we collectively work towards putting measures in place to mitigate the effects, we will not compromise in terms of health, safety and the environment. The work of the NRCS is therefore of utmost importance even in the face of the global economic challenges to ensure a level playing field for South African enterprises.
Ladies and gentlemen, allow me at this point to speak more specifically on the National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications. Firstly, we established this regulator on 1 September 2008 through the National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications Act (Act 5 of 2008). The Act itself provides the legal framework for the administration and maintenance of compulsory specifications in the interests of public safety, health, and environmental protection in South Africa. And the Act effectively changed the corporate form of the Regulatory division within the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) by establishing it as an independent public entity. I think it is worth noting that this clear delineation between the standards, conformity assessment and regulatory function is seen as best international practice.
In practice, the day to day work of the Regulator constitutes approvals, inspections and market surveillance as well as sanctions at appropriate levels to deter abuse of regulations. When a product does not comply with a specific compulsory specification the NRCS will recall such a product, allow the product to be returned to the country of origin by the importer or be confiscated and destroyed. An example is a where a directive was issued for flexible cords and cord extension sets that did not contain the minimum percentage of copper and failed the conductor resistance test, therefore posing a serious safety risk to consumers.
I think it is also important to note that the NRCS administers compulsory product specification for all of government. For instance, it is envisaged that when the energy efficient lighting standards become compulsory, the NRCS will be responsible for implementation. This one task alone, considering its potential impact on the economy, is why we regard the NRCS as a national asset which should be used as extensively as possible.
The Regulator furthermore requires the use of accredited testing and certification facilities by manufacturers as part of demonstrating compliance to the conformity assessment requirements as prescribed by the NRCS. Not only does this ensure confidence in the service providers but it also levels the playing field for all competent conformity assessment service providers. This in turn addresses a concern or perhaps perception that in terms of the previous Standards Act, the SABS monopolised the market.
We are also fully aware that compulsory specifications could easily become unnecessary technical barriers to trade. However, the effective institutional framework provided by the NRCS adheres to the World Trade Organisation Technical Barrier to Trade requirements in that it follows a transparent and non-discriminatory process. It also allows for consultation with all stakeholders thus making the system predictable.
Ladies and gentlemen in conclusion, it is our view that the NRCS is a sterling example of how regulators could optimise the use of the Technical Infrastructure and its related institutions. For instance, the Act prescribes that whenever possible a compulsory specification should be based on a national standard, therefore drawing from the specialised standardisation expertise of the South African Bureau of Standards. Based on recent developments we are aware that the inspection functions of the NRCS are increasingly demonstrating their competence by obtaining accreditation within their sphere of operation. I wish to congratulate you on this performance.
I must therefore join Mr Zikode in thanking the employees and management of the NRCS who kept the ball rolling during this transitional period, the Interim Management Committee as well as the South African Bureau of Standards Board and management
I therefore ask you to please join me by celebrating the official launch of the dti’s new regulator the National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications.