still fuelled to fight?

Robert Laing

Robert Laing

It's Raymond Ackerman's 77th birthday next Monday.

He has vowed not to retire as Pick n Pay chairman until he has done for petrol what he did for bread and milk - getting prices decided by competition rather than by a government committee.

On Friday a government committee decreed that the retail price of petrol will leap by a record 61c, taking the price of 93octane commonly used inland to R8,11 and 95octane at the coast to R8,01 a litre from tomorrow at midnight.

In a telephone interview Ackerman sounded a little hesitant to confirm his vow to remain chairman until he has won the fight for petrol deregulation he started 33 years ago still stands.

He said: "Petrol is the reason I'm still working. I'm confident petrol deregulation will happen soon.

"One reason is biofuels. Getting rid of the agricultural boards brought competition to the food market, and thanks to the biofuel revolution they can now compete with oil companies.

"Another reason petrol regulation can't last much longer is that it gives the government a credibility problem. It's clamping down on bread and milk producers for colluding, while at the same time ordering the petrol companies to collude.

"Petrol would not be cracking the R8 a litre on Wednesday if oil companies were forced to compete."

Ackerman added: "That bread and milk producers were recently hauled before competition authorities for price collusion would have been unthinkable in the apartheid era.

"Back then industries were encouraged to form cosy cartels and work in concert with government committees to fix prices."

Ackerman helped bring that era to an end by enraging the apartheid government when he undercut the bread price they dictated.

In 1975 Ackerman defied the authorities again by selling petrol cheaper than the government dictated price.

"Despite the wrath of oil companies and their allies, there was no clarity at the time as to whether petrol price cutting in South Africa was actually illegal or not, and our rebellion stirred the nest of officialdom into a frenzy of action," Ackerman wrote in his book The Four Legs of The Table.

But after a court victory, in which a judge ruled the laws were too vague to prosecute Pick n Pay or its fuel supplier Trek, the government amended its legislation to make its fuel prices more explicit.

Shortly after Nelson Mandela's release, Ackerman met the incoming president and impressed on him the need to modernise South Africa's markets.

"The new government initially agreed to do away with food and petrol price fixing. We got rid of the agricultural boards, but we are still stuck with petrol price control after all these years."

Ackerman blames the byzantine structure that has grown around fuel price control for its persistence.

"One of the weird laws governing petrol sales is that garages may not accept credit card payment, something that invariably catches most tourists.

"We have to get rid of that before the flood of 2010 visitors," he said.