Dressed up for Madiba: President Cyril Ramaphosa and Nelson Mandela Foundation chairman Njabulo Ndebele with cabinet members show off the Nelson Mandela centenary T-shirt. Picture: GCIS
Dressed up for Madiba: President Cyril Ramaphosa and Nelson Mandela Foundation chairman Njabulo Ndebele with cabinet members show off the Nelson Mandela centenary T-shirt. Picture: GCIS

Most initiatives trading on Nelson Mandela’s legacy have lofty aims and are virtuously pitched at consumers. The "must-have" T-shirt to commemorate the 2018 centenary of Madiba’s birth will be sold on a similar basis.

The company that produced the T-shirt in partnership with the Nelson Mandela Foundation depicts the garment as one to "inspire the fight for social and economic transformation".

In SA, proponents of that slogan are puffed up with pride, but the T-shirt originates in a factory in Mauritius, owned by the South African Clothing and Textile Workers Union (Sactwu), which is vociferously committed to supporting local goods — the lifeblood of its members.

"Embedded in the African DNA" is the T-shirt’s tagline, but South African clothing producers are scathing, saying it could easily have been made in SA.

The cotton for the T-shirt was grown in Madagascar. It was spun, knitted and dyed in Mauritius. The cloth was cut and stitched in SA. The Mauritian component of the job cost upwards of R23m, according to Trade Call Investments Apparel.

Trade Call is owned by Sactwu and its MD, Herman Pillay. Together they bought Star Knitwear in Mauritius in 2015 for R199m, accepting liabilities of R261m. At the time the company employed 1,400 people.

Companies are heavily invested in this industry. There is local capacity. Some guys are desperate for work. They have had to put staff on short time and even retrench.
Arthur Limbouris

While Sactwu demands adherence to minimum wages and basic conditions from employers in SA, Mauritian workers are paid less and are paid per item produced rather than by the hour, as in SA.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation and Trade Call shared a platform to celebrate the launch of the T-shirt for the centenary celebrations. The foundation’s Luzuko Koti said that every aspect of the T-shirt, "from the cotton grown in SA to the manufacturing and printing done in the country is embedded in the African DNA". Pillay held up a placard at the launch reading: "Who made my clothes?" The shirt has been worn by notables including President Cyril Ramaphosa and the Springboks ahead of their match against Wales.

This is not the first time Star Knitwear has earned the ire of the industry. In February, a South African company complained to the Textile Federation in a confidential letter that was copied to the Department of Trade and Industry and Woolworths. The company accused the cotton value chain cluster of turning a blind eye to a 60-tonne order for Star in Mauritius for spinning when competent, cost competitive and local companies could do the work.

The cluster, sponsored by the Department of Trade and Industry, is meant to nurture the local fabric and garment industry across the supply chain from cotton growers to garment manufacturers. The 60-tonne order was spun in Mauritius by Tianli Spinners (which also worked on the Madiba T-shirt) and knitted and dyed by Star. The order was destined for sale in Woolworths stores.

"Cotton should not leave our shores … (to) support our direct competitors in Mauritius. The fact that the fabric manufacturer in Mauritius is owned by Trade Call and therefore Sactwu adds insult to injury. It is nothing short of a travesty that this production will support a Sactwu-owned business in Mauritius and compromise local employers," the letter read.

Durban-based knitter and garment manufacturer Arthur Limbouris is the former CEO of Quiksilver in SA and a vocal critic of industry players who preach compliance but subvert agreements in private deals. He describes Sactwu’s investment in Mauritius as despicable.

"Companies are heavily invested in this industry. There is local capacity. Some guys are desperate for work. They have had to put staff on short time and even retrench," he says. "This can be resolved with the stroke of a pen if the chains demanded that South African companies abide by agreements to support the local industry, pay fair wages and source materials ethically. You can’t boast about Madiba T-shirts being made locally when it damages the local industry. Madiba’s image on that T-shirt is made of words like ‘integrity’ and ‘accountability’."

National Textile Bargaining Council vice-chairman Hans Brouwer was surprised to learn about the Mauritian input on the Madiba T-shirt. Brouwer, who is also human resources manager at Prilla, a spinning mill in KwaZulu-Natal, says his company could have provided the fabric. "People can’t make a hoo-ha about supporting the local economy ... this would definitely have been an opportunity to do so."

Pillay says he and Sactwu bought Star because South African knitters lacked capacity and weren’t cheap. "We invested in Mauritius for quick turnaround time. We source fashion knit fabrics from Star. This has reduced dependency on China. You have to invest in integrated supply chains."

Pillay says local mills have good knitting capacity but poor weaving capacity. He says Star also gives Trade Call access to customers in Europe. The union’s investment in various companies had contributed to saving 2,000 local jobs, he says.

The Mandela centenary T-shirt, which will retail at Woolworths and Edgars, among other outlets, was Pillay’s brainchild. Only a "small percentage" of the garment was made in Mauritius, he says.

It cost Trade Call R67 per T-shirt to make and it is being sold to the retailers at R75. So far 400,000 have been produced.

Pillay says every rand made over and above Trade Call’s cost will be donated to charity. He says he has left it up to the retailers — who will sell the T-shirts for R150 each — to make whatever donations they see fit.

"South African knitters are angry that they didn’t get the work. They are expensive, they don’t talk nonprofit and they don’t have the capacity, you wait in a queue. Mills say they will give you everything, but they don’t. Day-to-day servicing is a challenge that won’t go away."

Pillay says the Madiba T-shirt is part of a global campaign to benefit the Nelson Mandela Foundation. It is not meant to "fuel the mischief of any non-strategic businesses that have no innovative foresight to keep their positioning relevant".

Sactwu general secretary Andre Kriel says the union invested in Star to help local manufacturers get quick access to fashion knit fabrics not currently available in SA. He says the union remains the most significant investor in local textile mills, such as Frame Knitting. "There is no competition as all the benefit returns to the local sector. It is ridiculous to assume that our union would make investment decisions which would threaten the interests of our members," Kriel says.

Correction: June 21 2018

An earlier version of this failed to include the fact that the cotton for the T-shirts was spun, knitted and dyed in Mauritius