A 4-part series analysis into Johannesburg’s fashion district, based on immigrants within the manufacturing sector of the industry. This is Part 2: The History.
Until the late 1980s, South Africa’s clothing industry was booming. A trip to the CBD was an occasion one dressed up for. The workers were predominantly white Afrikaans women, with the main factories in Cape Town. The industry took a turn for the worst in a national decline. There were several contributing factors, including the emergence of unions. Labour became too expensive with the introduction of minimum wages and regulated working hours. Retrenchments took place and thereafter several businesses shut down or relocated. Doing business in neighbouring African countries (the likes of Lesotho and Botswana) thus became more alluring to manufacturers. As the masses left town, buildings were left abandoned and formal business operations came to a halt. In the collapse of formal businesses, informal businesses emerged. The clothing industry in South Africa operates almost completely informally. The buildings that stood empty have since been taken over or left empty. Waling through the buildings that are still in operation, one can see abandoned rooms within them with only the remnants of what once was.
Another important factor leading to the industry’s decline was the emergence of cheap Asian imports. This is as relevant today as it was back then. The clothing industry as a whole is inevitably linked to production and without it, there could be no improvement in the industry. About 5 years ago, the government introduced an increased fee on imports and quotas in a bid to aid South African businesses. However, this has failed as it has only hurt those who import goods legitimately. Illegal imports are occurring on a large scale and thus the attempt to rejuvenate the manufacturing industry has failed. Other attempts include SEW Africa (a training academy) and the Fashion Kapital which received substantive investments. However, the state of the industry has not yielded the benefits that it set out to. Following the exodus of businesses from the now decentralised CBD, production was severely slowed down. Skilled immigrants then came to the area, now populating about 70% of the industry. The immigrants produce higher quality work at a quicker pace and were willing to work as many of them have no choice due to coming into the country illegally. The demand and willingness for work of immigrants from countries including Nigeria, Ghana and Malawi have outweighed that of the South Africans.