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1 October 2019
UWC Wear SA Collaboration

(Published - 1 October 2019)

On 20 June 2019, President Cyril Ramaphosa stood before the National Assembly to deliver his first State of the Nation Address (SONA) as an elected president.

As has become customary, most of those present had been dressed to impress by local designers. The President, however, proudly announced that his splendid suit was 100% locally sourced, ready-to-wear and made in a factory a mere four kilometres away.

With this simple act, he signalled his government’s intent to revive a part of the manufacturing sector that has been devastated by the effects of trade liberalisation and international competition.

South Africa’s once-mighty clothing and textile industry employed around 200 000 people in 1987, mostly in the then Cape and Natal provinces. Yet by 2006, dozens of factories had closed, the number of workers had almost halved and local manufacturers were floundering in a market flooded with cheap Asian imports.

In the Western Cape, the shedding of jobs began to diminish around 2010 and some companies were even able to regain profitability – thanks to a combination of fortuitous factors such as government support for investing in and modernising production technology, the majority of the major retailers being based in the province and, importantly, the fact that local businesses were represented through the entire value chain. Around this time, the consensus reached by the major stakeholders – business owners, trade unions and government trade and industry agencies – was that the revival of the sector would depend on stimulating and growing the local market.

As confirmed by the President: “We will stimulate local demand and grow South African manufacturing by making sure the ‘Buy Local’ campaign is everywhere and ever-present. We call on all South Africans to deliberately and consistently buy locally-made goods.”

Clearly, growing local supply and demand would contribute economic benefits, boost profits and taxation and create desperately needed job opportunities. But, given that consumers have the right to buy whatever they like, what does “Buy Local” really mean?

It means much more than simply buying a garment bearing a “Made in South Africa” label, which may well have been made up in South Africa entirely from imported textiles. In such cases, much of the value in the production chain would remain outside our economy.

An effective “Buy Local” strategy that stimulates the clothing and textile industry to the extent that it creates thousands of sustainable new jobs, generates foreign revenue through competitive exports and recruits the patronage of loyal local consumers must be founded on a holistic, comprehensive and innovative approach that requires that:

  • Local suppliers competitively provide alternatives to importing components at every stage of the value chain;
  • Local retail chains have local suppliers who can handle the desired volumes of product;
  • Existing suppliers are able to invest in machinery, skills training and best practices in production; and
  • Capital is unlocked to invest in new production facilities. This includes banks and government increasing its appetite for risk and regulators reducing red tape and other barriers to entry in the sector.

However, to maximise impact, ‘Buy Local’ must also mean buying into local, by investing philosophically and aesthetically in design, entrepreneurship and consistent quality until a point is reached where the consumer prefers buying South African fashion.

This is the notion that inspired the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union’s Wear SA campaign. Wear SA is a partnership between a range of industry organisations and local Cape Town universities.

Wayne van der Rheede, the spokesperson for Wear SA, says: “By buying locally made items, we are helping to stimulate a sustainable industry that supports many thousands of workers across the country.” 

The campaign’s purpose is to grow and sustain the local manufacturing sector by creating a sustainable design model that supports ethical sourcing. Its aim is to empower local creative talent that has the vision and commitment to develop authentic South African fashion brands as a real competitive alternative to our international counterparts.

The Wear SA campaign will soon launch an incubator store at the University of the Western Cape’s Faculty of Community and Health Sciences building in the Bellville CBD. Staffed by 18 students, the store will provide experiential training in all facets of the industry, including garment design, manufacturing, buying, retail and marketing.

The Wear SA campaign will also support a six-week bootcamp to develop student entrepreneurial and event management skills, culminating in the “AwearSA Fashion Show” on campus that will showcase local designers’ collaboration with students. In 2018, the funds generated from the popular fashion show supported student bursaries. This year, the show will fund the “Rise against Hunger” campaign, which provides meals to students, many of whom depend on bursaries to cover all their daily needs.

UWC’s participation in Wear SA not only assists the revival of the local clothing and textile sector but will contribute to graduate employability and the development of entrepreneurial skills among current students. Last year, many participating students were not only inspired to consider careers in the clothing industry but, having encountered the realities of factory work and the effects of job losses in the industry, several are now contemplating careers as social entrepreneurs.

The incubator store has huge potential as a pilot for how industries and institutions of higher learning can collaborate to foster economic growth. The programme underscores the value of universities, government and business working with the youth to realise the goals of the National Development Plan.

As President Ramaphosa said in the 2019 SONA, the youth “are brimming with ideas, they are at the forefront of innovation, and they want to do things for themselves”.

Charleen Duncan is the Director of the University of the Western Cape’s Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.