Western countries’ exports of second-hand clothing to Africa have not only destroyed Africa’s once-thriving textiles industry, with a consequent loss of skills and jobs, but have also led to a loss of pride and dignity. By Said Adejumobi
Once upon a time, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, Africa had a thriving textile sector. A city like Kaduna in Nigeria was famous for its many textile firms.
Local prints of traditional African designs were produced in large volumes. Young men and women about to leave school were often filled with excitement at the prospect of working in the textile industry – the pay was good and workers were organised in unions –the Textile and Garment Workers Union was one of the strongest.
Citizens wore decent clothes, jobs were created and government earned revenue in a win-win situation. All that has changed; the textile factories are gone – turned mostly into prayer grounds. The jobs have gone as well, creating despair among young people, making them vulnerable to the lure of Boko Haram, and taxes earned from the sector by the government have virtually dried up. In economic parlance, this is called “deindustrialisation”.
South Africa, Africa’s industrial powerhouse, has not been immune to the decline of the textile industry. In the immediate post-apartheid era, there were textile factories all over South Africa and many of the garment-selling retail shops like Edgars, Mr Price, etc, sold high-quality locally made South African clothes.
By the first decade of the 21st century, South Africa’s textile industry was in distress, and now it has virtually disappeared. No less than 20,000 direct jobs have been lost, while the figure for job losses in associated industries is close to half a million.
A 2017 study by Esther Katende on the impact of second-hand clothing on the East African region states: “In the 1960s to the early 1980s, the clothing and shoes industrial sector in East Africa was thriving and producing for both the local markets as well as the export market, and employing thousands of people. Value chains in the sector were well established, right from the production of raw materials to the finished products.
“However, over the years, the clothing and shoes manufacturing industries have collapsed with the emergence of an informal sector dealing in second-hand clothes and shoes (SHC). At present, the majority of the population in East Africa source their clothing needs from this informal sector, which has curtailed efforts at revamping the clothing and shoes industrial sectors in the region”.
A policy of trade liberalisation promoted under globalisation, which started with the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) had damaging consequences for Africa’s textile sector.
Killing African textiles
Cheap clothes from other parts of the world flooded African markets, even from countries that did not liberalise their own markets and protected their own producers from competition. The economic lexicon was that African textile firms were no longer competitive and needed to die natural deaths.
The onslaught on Africa’s textile sector has taken a new turn with the ascendancy of second-hand clothing as a major component of international trade.
There is another, even more damaging dimension to this trade. Wearing and trading in second-hand clothes is not only about trade but also human dignity, decency and a sense of self-pride. It is debasing and dehumanising for a people to stash their wardrobes with clothes that others have worn and sweated in, repeatedly.
If we wear second-hand clothes, lace up second-hand shoes, drive second-hand cars, and possibly in the near future also eat second- hand food, how do we prevent being called “second-hand citizens” of the world? It is not only production, industrialisation and jobs that are at stake but also, human honour and dignity.
Second-hand clothing has become big business, especially in the Western world, and lobby groups have emerged for it. Whether Africa likes it or not, the attitude of the powerful is that Africa must consume second-hand clothing, and a refusal to do so will attract trade sanctions from their governments.
Second-hand clothing has become a multi-billion-dollar industry, with major advanced countries as the source of those clothes. It is estimated that in 2015, the imports of second-hand clothes to East Africa had a value of no less than $151m, while two countries from the West in 2013 exported over $1bn of second-hand clothing.
It’s never too difficult to find intellectual and economic justifications for bizarre activities like this. After all, the slave trade was also justified in its day. Those who rationalise it say the sphere employs a lot of people, gives access to cheap clothes, especially for the poor, and argue that governments can make money from it through import duties and taxes.
What these apostles of second-hand clothing refuse to acknowledge is the alternative forgone in creating decent jobs through textile and garment manufacturing, industrial progress, innovation, technology, and the opportunity for Africa to be part of a modern decent world.
Second-hand clothing reinforces global power relations between the weak and the strong, the powerful and the powerless amongst nations. It constructs or reinforces a narrative of those who invent and wear new and original things, and those who are hewers of wood and drawers of water, who wear what others have discarded.
Those who wear new clothes, and those who wait for those new clothes to be used and discarded before they are worn, cannot be one and the same. It smacks more of a master-servant relationship and there is a powerful psychological dimension in the interaction between the two.
Stiff resistance to change
In addressing this issue, the East African Community (EAC) in 2016 took the bold decision to ban second-hand clothing and shoes. Countries like Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and Burundi are part of the bloc.
Their argument, which is basically economic, is that they want to revive the textile industry in the region. There has been stiff and prompt resistance to it from the exporting nations. If you do it, you will face economic sanctions. Your trade preferences will be taken away, your primary products that in the first instance attract low prices will be curtailed, and your economies will face serious pressures.
Some of those EAC countries are already wavering and backing out. Perhaps it’s only Rwanda that is standing strong, that is prepared to weather the storm.
Those who claim to support Africa in its industrialisation and development processes must do so in good faith. They cannot give with one hand, and take with another. If they give development aid and support on the one hand, but on the other hand undermine Africa’s capacity to grow and industrialise, then the purpose is defeated.
What has become clear in the world today is that the faith and future of all nations are bounded together. For instance, crisis in some countries as witnessed in Libya, Iraq and Syria triggered refugee flows to all parts of the world. Globalisation is creating a seamless world no matter how nations seek to close their borders. The economic crisis in Greece is creating a huge burden and responsibility for the EU; that is the nature of the interconnected world that we live in today.
There are several options we could explore for the use of second- hand clothing. Items could be given charitably across the world, as was done mostly in the 1960s and 1970s, or simply recycled to manufacture other new things. Africa cannot be the home to second-hand clothing; it is inimical to our progress, development, honour and dignity. NA