by Nawaal Deane, Mail&Guardian, 15 February 2004
PLEASE NOTE: Readers wishing to reproduce and
reference this article
should contact the editors of Mail&Guardian for permission
A big black hand gently directs a needle with yellow cotton from
a sewing machine into blue fabric to create an embroidered picture of a rural
It will take an hour for Saddam Kwesi*, a 29-year-old Ghanaian, to complete the design on this skirt, which he hopes will be worn by a young South African woman.
He is one of about 50 West African designers in the Johannesburg inner city’s fashion district. Most rent small offices in nondescript buildings as their workrooms and showrooms.
To find Kwesi, we pass vegetable vendors, pavement hairdressers and street hawkers, eventually coming across a battered mannequin draped in a bright orange-and-black, heavily embroidered African outfit. It stands alongside a home-made sign declaring: “Touba Fashion — African Embroidery designers — 8th Floor.”
A cranky elevator takes us to a small room where dozens of multi-coloured, richly patterned garments are hanging. In another room, where fabric is thrown across every available surface, sit three West African embroiderers. Kwesi boasts of the intricate patterns he can create without even drawing a picture on the fabric: “Even though we use the machine [to embroider], you must think about it [the pattern] so your hand communicates with your brain.”
In most West African countries the art of embroidery is a male rather than a female pursuit, one handed down through the generations. But, says Kwesi, “It is not easy to learn and takes about five years of apprenticeship”.
He came to South Africa almost five years ago, armed only with the ability to embroider. He saw South Africa as a new market for West African clothing. “In Ghana, this [art] has been there for centuries — everyone is doing it. But, here, Africans dress like white people and not in traditional clothing.” Kwesi says most of his clients purchase the garments for weddings and special occasions.
Since the end of apartheid, the inner city has had an influx of immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa. The exodus of white-dominated corporate head offices and the move by large retailing enterprises to decentralised shopping malls created a vacuum that has been filled by the informal sector.
Fahmida Cachalia, former programme manager of the Inner City Garment Project and author of a study called The Urban Edge of African Fashion, says the informal clothing industry has become a hub for immigrant entrepreneurs. They have “established their businesses on the basis of capital brought in from outside South Africa or from savings earned while working in the country”.
Immigrants from Francophone West Africa (especially Senegal, Mali and Ivory Coast) see “the inner city as a place of opportunity rather than a zone of economic decline”. Taxi routes bring Africans from the continent directly into the inner city to purchase cheap products, making it the ideal location for Kwesi to sell his creations.
“Here we embroider the Zulu shields or a Lesotho hat with West African embroidery designs for our South African customers,” says Kwesi. He says traditional West African designs have been fused with South African traditional symbols and styles to create a new African look.
A fully embroidered shirt costs anything from R250 to R1 500, depending on how long it took to complete the pattern. The garments are relatively expensive because, apart from the embroidery, they are made from the wax-print fabric Vlisco, which is imported from Holland.
Kwesi points to a yellowed album in which satisfied customers pose in their completed outfits. He uses this album as a catalogue.
He will not settle in South Africa permanently because of the burden of living without a permanent residence permit and the constant persecution by immigration police. “When you come to South Africa you expect black people to be nicer and treat you like Africans. But we are not free — everywhere you go you are attacked and there is nothing you can do.”
He lives in Yeoville because “it is difficult for West Africans to stay in Soweto” — foreigners are not welcome. Kwesi doesn’t believe he is taking jobs from South Africans, but, rather, creating jobs and boosting the economy. He says South Africans are lazy. “It takes five years to learn this but they want to do it in a few months.”
On the other hand, a survey by Christian Rogerson, professor of geography at the University of the Witwatersrand, found that the majority of immigrants claimed that they had not been the victim of xenophobia or hostility by South Africans. The problems they experience are a result of police harassment and individual hostility.
“Despite these difficulties experienced in South Africa, 27 of 28 interviewees said that in future they did plan to expand the operations of their clothing manufacturing businesses in Johannesburg.”
According to Rogerson many of the immigrants also earn higher incomes than local fashion entrepreneurs, because of a higher level of education and skills. He said immigrants are “formidable” entrepreneurs, with a capacity to adjust and compete successfully.
“Differences emerge also in the type of clothing production which takes place ... Foreign entrepreneurs often have special skills in embroidery and this is reflected in producing a range of more highly specialised custom-made garments in traditional (often imported) African materials.” He said immigrant entrepreneurs enjoy access to international networks and contacts that South African entrepreneurs traditionally have not been a part of.
The immigrants are assisted by an NGO, Bees Consulting Group (BCG), supported by the Ford Foundation, which commissioned Rogerson’s survey. The intention was to look at the relationship between South Africans and immigrants and to expand fashion markets. BCG director Kevin Kane said the survey found that African designers were doing good work but the decor industry and the larger market were unaware of it.
“There were lots of problems with company registration and how immigrants can get work permits.” He said many immigrants felt the risk of registering their business outweighed the benefits.
This study paved the way for opening up the market by linking South Africans and immigrant designers. For instance, there is a major collaboration under way with local designer Jacob Kimmie.
The immigrants also participated in the Fusion Workshop, intended, said Cachalia, “to teach South African designers about the richness and variety of West African garment design and embroidery and to teach the West African immigrants about what is popular and in demand in South Africa”.* His self-chosen pseudonym