COVID-19 and Beyond
South Africa’s formerly flourishing clothing manufacturing industry has been decimated by international competition since 1994. Although significant progress has been made in enhancing the competitiveness of the multi-billion-rand industry through government and private sector collaboration, the sector continues to shed jobs, and more especially with the COVID 19 crisis that has ravaged the World. With discretionary income shrinking, clothing retail sales are under growing pressure. Before the COVID 19 crisis, there was an estimated 800 clothing manufacturers operating in South Africa that generated revenue of R19bn in 2018/9, while retail sales of clothing, footwear and textiles totalled more than R175bn. Retail-Clothing, Textile, Footwear and Leather (R-CTFL) is an important sector in KZN and employs about 90 000 in South Africa with 130 000 being employed informally. KwaZulu-Natal contributes about 43% of R-CTFL.
In April 2020, the South African government declared a National lockdown as a result of the COVID 19 crisis. Consequently, the Clothing & Textile sector as one of KwaZulu-Natal’s biggest employers of skills across the spectrum held a Webinar to identify strategic partnerships both in the private and government sector to overcome the challenges brought upon it by the pandemic. A critical area for intervention in the medium to long term is to develop the sector using 4IR tools and technology, to improve manufacturing processes, to enhance sale and services by digitalization, and to address issues of innovation in advanced manufacturing methods in the value chain (such as production of plant based fibres into textile). Examples of innovation in materials for textile include hemp plant and bagasse.
Before the COVID 19 crisis pockets of domestic activity or niche areas of production in this sector were doing exceptionally well. However, the crisis has slowed down the sales of clothing & textiles, while companies that were agile enough were able to re-direct their production to manufacture much needed protection wear (PPE) which is now ongoing and will continue until the COVID 19 crisis has abated. To mitigate some of the challenges including the influx of imports, the KZN government has seized this opportunity to develop the province’s manufacturing capabilities through a series of medium to long term interventions.
Pre Covid-19 the small-medium factories were located mainly in the KZN rural towns of Ladysmith, Isithebe, Newcastle, Port Shepstone and eThekwini. The KZN government in partnership with the National Department of Trade & Industry are engaged in the development of a Clothing & Textile Special Economic Zone in the uThukela region. This development is the catalyst for the Corridor Development of the sector linking the Western region including uMgungundlovu region with the eThekwini and industrial sites north of eThekwini.
The clothing sector is a significant employer within KwaZulu-Natal's manufacturing sector. This fact, coupled with the relatively low barriers to entry, makes it a highly strategic industry sector in terms of development. The labour-intensive nature of the sector is an important consideration in terms of the labour force, of which women comprise a large proportion. The KwaZulu-Natal government acknowledges the importance of this sector and its complex nature comprising of informal to micro, small and large businesses.