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Building capacity to help Africa trade better

State of South Africa’s import trade in textiles and clothing

Trade Briefs

State of South Africa’s import trade in textiles and clothing

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Despite increased global competition, the textile and clothing (T&C) industry is a very strategic sector for Southern Africa that has significant forward and backward linkages and huge employment creating capacity in both the formal and informal sectors. For South Africa, the T&C sector’s importance cannot be overemphasised, given the sector’s extensive employment of low-skilled labour. Trade liberalisation between 1995 and 2002, the entry of China into the World Trade Organisation in 2001, and the volatility of the exchange rate from 2003 onwards, however, has left the South African clothing and textiles industries particularly vulnerable. This has seen a substantial portion of the textiles and clothing sold in South Africa being imported and employment levels correspondingly have suffered. Illegal import practices which are now common have exacerbated the industry’s demise.

Government’s response to the influx of imports mainly from China through the imposition of quotas over the period 2007 to 2008 proved largely ineffective against the surge of low-cost substitutes. This tells us that the present clothing manufacturing business model does not match the capabilities required by fast fashion retailers. As a result, South African manufacturers have not been able to compete for a bigger share of the domestic market, despite the long lead-times on products coming from countries such as China and India.

For Southern African countries, the South African market provides an opportunity for trade given South Africa’s economic significance in the region both in terms of market size and as a source of foreign direct investment, with the latter being a limiting factor in most countries in the region. The continued efforts towards establishing an expanded market amongst countries in east and Southern Africa through the establishment of the Tripartite FTA provides opportunities and constraints for the T&C industry in Southern Africa. This is mainly because the shifting of market boundaries and the improvement of market access is going to have a significant impact on the size, structure and competitiveness of industries in TFTA (COMESA, SADC and EAC) member states due to the variable geometry within industries.

The objectives of this paper are, therefore, to determine the extent to which South Africa is importing T&C products from SADC and other TFTA members, and to consider factors that may be impeding imports from these countries (including tariff analysis and rules of origin, among others). Finally, a review of South Africa’s imports from China, compared with other imports, is presented.


Readers are encouraged to quote and reproduce this material for educational, non-profit purposes, provided the source is acknowledged. All views and opinions expressed remain solely those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the views of tralac.

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