The Immigrants of Johannesburg’s Fashion District

A 4-part series analysis into Johannesburg’s fashion district, based on immigrants within the manufacturing sector of the industry. This is Part 3: The Immigrants.

*Our mayor, Herman Mashaba, has recently said (on the topic of illegal immigrants): “You see, for me, when I call these criminals criminals, I want them to understand that they are criminals … They are holding our country to ransom and I am going to be the last South African to allow it.” Let me know your thoughts after reading this. 

William* sits at his chair facing a wall as he works the fabric through the machine in front of him. His workspace is small, with material and garments towering over him. He is originally from Malawi, although he has called South Africa home for 25 years. William had to leave his home country as their currency weakened. He worked there as a tailor, although rent become unaffordable and the situation was “tough.” Leaving behind his family, he “had to run away” to South Africa where he continued his work to support his children. Immigrants brought with them a variety of skills needed in the fashion industry. These included West African embroidery (a skill that is acquired after 5 years) and specialised sewing from Nigerians and Malawians like William. Fashion for them is a way of life and the skills are inherited through the family.

As William speaks to me, he reminds me that every minute of the interview is a minute of his time, wasted. He is working on a backlog of orders. It is midday now but his day started at 4am. He makes use of public transport from Soweto. William’s day ends at the close of trading hours, but this is a restriction that he wishes did not exist. Working through the night is something he is no stranger to and something that would allow him to get more work done, he explains.

As a clothing manufacturer, the first order of business is to have a meeting with the client. Once the style(s) are communicated and the cost of production is agreed upon, patterns need to be drawn; these transform the design sketches to life-size cardboard working plans that detail the shapes and stitches. Next, the fabric, which is provided by the client, is measured and cut. Only then can the garment construction begin. Other aspects of the manufacturing process include screen printing and the embroidery of goods. A skill once done by hand is now mechanised by large machines that cost a small fortune. Due to this development in technology, graphic designers are needed to digitalise the designs. Due to the informal and niche operations within the Johannesburg fashion district, these skills are often offered exclusively by businesses whose capabilities are niche. William, for example, specialises only in sewing.

In such a multi-cultural space, assimilation into South Africa has social impacts on immigrants. Many tend to stick together in terms of where they work and stay. This is true for Kingdom*, a Nigerian who moved to SA recently. He is able to walk to work, cutting out costs of transport (which is otherwise one of the largest expenses for South Africans). Kingdom is working for a Nigerian man and knows others in the area and learnt his handwork (sewing) at home, although he continues to learn new skills here. Cultures are assimilated through his designs, combining both a South African and Nigerian look. Although Kingdom is fond of South Africa and finds its’ people easy to communicate with, he has experienced xenophobia and despises it, especially coming from Nigeria, where he says the government advocates peace. He explains that when xenophobic attacks occur, opportunities for theft and fighting are created. He explains that he knows someone who was killed, while others had their cars burnt. It infringes upon the life he wishes he could lead.

William, however, has not experienced xenophobia. He has assimilated into South African culture by living amongst the people (in Soweto) and by learning the language (Zulu) to communicate efficiently. Although this is rare for immigrants, William felt that it was a necessary means to understand the people and to live well amongst them. He noted that his fears decreased when he got his ID. Although William has assimilated into South African culture, he still reminisces about the friendliness of the people from home and keeps his culture alive by eating Malawian food.

The immigrants working in the area consider the industry to be their profession. They bring their generational skills into the country with the economic motives. Many of the workers are men and send money home to their families. Through the diversity of nationalities and cultures, as well as the rise in black consciousness, traditional clothing has merged and adapted. Styles that are distinctly African (in both design and material) are becoming increasingly popular. Some garments are still sold specifically for men or titled people, however traditional items for women, for example, have been transformed into pants. This emerging identity is thus also inclusive of Western-inspired silhouettes.

Part 1: The District Today

Part 2: The History

Part 4: The Materials

Mr. Mashaba, I believe you are igniting xenophobia and are treating this as a black and white issue. Let us understand the plight of these immigrants and not forget their contributions to our city and society. I’m not sure what Joburg would be without them. 

3 thoughts

  1. Pingback: The Fabric of Johannesburg’s Fashion District – voguingvixen

  2. Pingback: Johannesburg’s Fashion District Today – voguingvixen

  3. Pingback: The History of Johannesburg’s Fashion District – voguingvixen

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