THE continental ban on second-hand clothes trade has stirred debate among Zimbabwean textile industry players, with the informal sector lamenting the loss of their primary source of income while formal retailers view the move as an opportunity to breathe life into an industry in the woods.
Independent statistics show that over 80% of the country’s population is in the informal sector following the collapse of the once buoyant manufacturing sector. Many are turning to selling second-hand clothing, vegetables and other wares to eke out a living.
In Bulawayo, Belmont, once an industrial hub, has been reduced to warehouses, as most firms close shop or scale down operations.
This month, the Council of Ministers for the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) adopted a protocol to ban trade in second-hand clothes (commonly known in Zimbabwe as mabhero) across the continent, to promote value-addition and industrialisation in the textile industry.
Critics say while an import substitution policy is vital in stimulating growth on the continent, many economies currently do not have capacity to meet domestic demand.
The ban would restrict traders from importing second-hand clothes, making the market favourable for formal players in the textile industry.
The Zimbabwean government imposed a ban on second-hand clothing trade in 2015 for the same reasons but eased the restrictions after a public outcry. The government then re-introduced the ban in 2020 to curb the rising cases of Covid-19 cases in the country. The ban was short-lived after the number of cases of the respiratory ailment declined.
Vendors Initiative for Social and Economic Transformation (VISET) executive director Samuel Wadzai said his organisation was against any efforts that intrude upon trade and people’s efforts to earn a living in the current turbulent economic environment.
“The ban will negatively impact the livelihoods of informal traders, considering that many of them nationwide earn a living from the trade, considering the relatively good returns in the trade,” Wadzai said.
“The AfCFTA ban is not the first time that the government of Zimbabwe has introduced a ban on second-hand clothes trade, as far back as 2015 and 2020, which as informal sector organisations we managed to successfully lobby against and got concessions of limited trade,” said Wadzai.
He said VISET would engage the government to find a way to protect the vendors who rely on this trade to feed their families.
“We will wait to hear the official government position and subsequently engage them as we have done in the past,” Ndebele added.
Conversely, Truworths’ chief executive officer Themba Ndebele said he supported the ban because the trade was killing the local manufacturing sector. An influx of cheap secondhand clothing, smuggling of apparel into the country and a weakening economy has thrown Truworths into the doldrums.
He said the ban would potentially breathe life into the dying textiles manufacturing industry and resuscitate closed businesses, thereby creating employment and earning the country much-needed revenue.
“Secondhand clothing has decimated the local clothing manufacturing industry with rising unemployment and poverty levels; it is destroying the formal retail sector,” said Ndebele.
“A ban on the importation of clothing will lead to the opening of closed factories, thereby generating formal sector employment, increase in taxes payable to government and local government and ultimately an increase in savings which in itself drives Investment,” he said.
He noted that second-hand clothes trading and smuggling was a result of failed economies, which lead to unemployment and chronic poverty.
Selling used clothes is a viable source of livelihood for many in Zimbabweans amid the economic crisis and lack of employment.
The bales of second-hand clothes are primarily sourced from abroad via Tanzania, Mozambique, South Africa and Zambia and the merchandise is sold at open-air markets that have sprouted throughout the country over the years.