Niels Wichmann head-of Volkswagen Brand

VWSA’s Ulrich Schwabe Is a Man with a Boat to Catch 


June 2023

Known fondly as Uli, the current Director of Production at Volkswagen South Africa’s Kariega assembly plant is a busy man. With a mandate of overseeing assembly and logistics for the timely delivery of both the sixth-generation Polo to a global audience, as well as the modern Polo Vivo package for the local market, this German national is also keen to make the most of his time in South Africa by touring regularly with his family, finding any opportunity to hone his braai skills and finding new routes on which to steer his beloved bicycle.

Currently producing 680 vehicles per day from the single assembly line that spans the breadth of the world-class Kariega plant, a bad day for Uli is one where either this volume target is not met for any number of reasons or, worst case, the slightest dip in quality is flagged.

With the goal of upping the daily output of the Kariega manufacturing plant to 710 units, Schwabe sees open lines of communication and the empowering of the 2 800-strong production workforce as key differentiators when it comes to achieving the best possible results for the plant, for Volkswagen South Africa’s position on the global stage and the VW brand. To this end, Uli hosts daily catch-up sessions with all production team leaders to discuss key functions within the plant, including safety, quality, employee satisfaction and cost efficiencies.

Suitably proud of each product that leaves the assembly line, Uli admits to feeling a notable tinge of excitement each time a Polo GTI appears. Whether destined for a left- or right-hand drive market, the Kariega plant is the sole assembly line responsible for this pinnacle Polo product. And yet, the head of production feels confident that his workforce, all suppliers and, indeed, the carefully managed line can cope with a third model – a touted entry compact SUV that VWSA is hoping to secure the assembly of soon. 

Of course, the VW brand’s global mandate to become carbon neutral in terms of production by 2030 is an ever-present, yet welcome reality for Ulrich. “While many weren’t happy to see the iconic palm trees that used to line the driveway of our facility removed,” says Schwabe, “the replacement of these with indigenous, significantly more waterwise fever trees was one small step towards creating a more efficient, harmonious working relationship with our beautiful surroundings.”

Keen to harness the traditionally blustery conditions around Kariega, plans are afoot to establish a wind park that will supplement the already significant amount of energy being generated for use in the plant by various solar PV initiatives. Uli also recently led the charge to reduce the amount of plastic packaging outlaid monthly by the production facility by, up to nine tons.

A brand that established its reputation on producing vehicles “for the people,” Volkswagen’s Kariega plant remains an integral part of this global company’s plans to continue to offer its customers personal transportation solutions that meet lofty expectations in terms of versatility, comfort and efficiency but also renowned build quality. By empowering those who build each of these vehicles, Ulrich Schwabe is confident that products delivered from this part of the world will also come standard with a hint of Mzansi magic