MUTARE — A discussion over the recent ban on the importation of secondhand clothing generated heated debate at a popular flea-market in Sakubva – the oldest township in this eastern border city.
Brian Munodawafa, a vendor at this busy street market yelled angrily on top of his voice in the presence of this reporter recently, as he shared his views with colleagues on this controversial subject.
“Imagine, we have close to 3 000 vendors here. These are all breadwinners,” he said. “What would happen to their families if the ban is effected? We will all die of hunger,” he observed, before calling on government not to rush to ban the importation and sale of cheap clothing, which has become their means of survival.
In August, Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa banned the importation of secondhand clothes, effective September 1.
Despite the ban, imported clothes have continued to flood the domestic market.
Part of the explanation for this has been that Chinamasa is still to promulgate the relevant statutes to formalise the ban.
Still, loads of secondhand clothing are being confiscated by the police and customs officials on account of the Finance Minister’s August statement.
Government moved to ban imports of second hand clothing in an effort to protect the local clothing and textile sector.
Scores of jobs have been lost in these sectors on the back of company closures and cutbacks in production in response to poor demand for their products.
Local companies are losing their market share to foreign competition, whose products are landing in Zimbabwe at giveaway prices.
To all intents and purposes, Zimbabwe has become the recipient of tonnes of cheap merchandise – aggravating the plight of the clothing and textile industry.
Opinion is split as to how government should respond to the threat of imports.
For those like Munodawafa (29), who are surviving on secondhand clothing, government is best advised not to interfere with market forces.
Munodawafa is of the view that the ban is inhuman and cruel, especially in the face of soaring unemployment.
All it would achieve, according to Munodawafa, is to further impoverish thousands of families that are living below the breadline.
He is among those who have been struggling to secure a decent job, despite graduating with a diploma in hotel and catering.
His qualification is presently decorating the walls in his living room because there are no emerging opportunities in the tourism and hospitality sector.
At one point, fortune had knocked on his door after Munodawafa secured a job at a Mutare food outlet. But that opportunity slipped through his fingers two years ago when the food outlet closed; having failed to navigate Zimbabwe’s harsh economic terrain.
Since then, he has been supporting his small family from his new found venture.
For Munodawafa and many others in similar situations, vending is providing relief from the pain and frustrations that come with idleness.
On average, Munodawafa earns US$20 during good weekdays and up to US$100 on profitable Saturdays.
“I have been living off from this small venture. It has not been easy, but I’m managing to support my wife and baby girl from the proceeds. I never dreamt that one day I would become a vendor, but it’s a sad reality that I have learnt to live with,” he said.
Clothing and textiles manufacturers are seeing things differently.
Most industry players are currently operating at 45 percent capacity, and are grappling with antiquated machinery.
About US$5 million is needed to retool the sector.
Jeremy Joumans, the chairperson of the Zimbabwe Clothing Manufacturers Association (ZCMA), said those who are criticising the industry for failing to beat prices charged by their competitors conveniently ignore the issue of quality, which gives the local players an edge over their rivals.
Generally, Zimbabwe’s cotton is considered among the best in the world.
It is handpicked, and is of high quality, hence its moniker, white gold.
“We understand that there are concerns about the pricing of our products, but one also has to consider the quality, which is competitive unlike our regional counterparts,” said Joumans.
While it is not ZCMA’s intention to compel government to stop donations of clothing items that are ending up being offered for sale, the association is keen to see mechanisms being put in place to stop leakages.
“Second hand clothing is banned in South Africa. And if they catch (anyone selling it), they will burn it. Maybe that is something we need to consider,” said Joumans.
“As a clothing industry, we have always said we don’t want to stop it because the donation is being donated to some people who cannot afford to clothe themselves. The problem is that they are not going to those people, they are going into our markets,” Youmans added.
To enforce the ban, government faces an uphill task.
Fundamentally, this is a business rooted in illegality, which means people will always find ways of dogging law enforcement agents.
The majority of the second hand clothes entering the country are being smuggled through Zimbabwe’s porous borders.
To the east, they are smuggled through Forbes Border Post, which borders Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
Another source of leakages eastwards is the Himalaya area in Nyanga District, which also borders Mozambique.
In most cases, what is being smuggled into Zimbabwe are bales of clothes that would have been donated to impoverished communities in Mozambique by the donor community in the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States and Denmark, among others.
Selling of the bales is strictly prohibited.
But, all the same, these bales are finding their way into Zimbabwe.
In 2012, two haulage trucks were intercepted by police in Masvingo with a combined total of 228 bales of secondhand clothes worth US$70 000.
These had been smuggled from Mozambique through Forbes Border Post.
In September, another Mutare-based smuggler was intercepted in Goromonzi with 36 bales of secondhand clothes smuggled from Mozambique.
Again, the bales had been transported through the Forbes Borders Post.
Unscrupulous members of the uniformed forces are said to be colluding with bales racketeers, through intricately woven smuggling syndicates.
Upon landing in Zimbabwe, the bales are being sold at between US$100 to US$250 each.
Their contents are then sold at various urban markets such as Sakubva and Mbare in Harare, among others.
As a result, some clothing companies in Mutare and across Zimbabwe have since closed shop, unable to withstand competition.
The National Vendors Union of Zimbabwe (NVUZ) this week said it defies logic that government is seeking to ban the only readily available source of employment in the country.
Samuel Wadzai, a director at NVUZ, wants the ban revoked a.s.a.p.
He said: “Government should reverse this decision otherwise the livelihoods of thousands of our members will be destroyed”.
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