Old lessons yet to be learned

Posted on September 10, 2011


When will they ever learn? That refrain from the great Pete Seeger anthem, Where have all the flowers gone seemed singularly appropriate this week as the row about patriotic memorabilia labelled “Made in China” erupted. And the trade union voices raised and the outrage expressed sounded very much like a stuck vinyl record.

It also took individual South Africans, caught up in the nationalistic “gees” (spirit) promoted by the likes of Proudly South African and its media chorus to raise to prominence this issue. On radio call-ins and in letters to the editor, it was they who pointed out that the Springbok jerseys and colours that they had been encouraged to sport on “Bok Fridays” were made in China. And this at a time when even more local garment workers face being laid off.

That all of this is taking place little more than a year after a similar fiasco with the soccer World Cup has boggled many minds. Little more than a year ago, it was discovered, to clucks of disapproval and widespread expressions of horror, that even those most South African of all sporting noise makers, the vuvuzelas, had been imported from China.

Not that China was — or is — the only culprit in terms of providing imports that undermine domestic manufacturing and jobs. As this column pointed out last year, World Cup scarves, hats and other paraphenalia available in all the stores carried labels from Turkey, Pakistan and Taiwan. All could have been made locally.

Once again — and last year was not the first time — questions were belatedly asked as to why no agreement had been reached, in this case with Fifa, about local procurement and the supply of memorabilia. After all, it was pointed out, Fifa demands a royalty on Fifa branded products, no matter where they are produced. But there never was a satisfactory answer, although the margins made by retailers gives a good indication of why imports triumphed over local procurement.

However, the question remained: why was it that there was no discussion, let alone agreement reached, about the provision and procurement of garments and other memorabilia in the six years between the decision to stage the World Cup in South Africa and the event taking place? Surely government, involved through its sports ministry and together with the World Cup bid team, should have realised the importance of this?

Apparently not. But then, neither did the unions, until the memorabiia began to flood in. Then there were excuses offered by the soccer officials regarding delays in the securing of specific sponsors. Yet such sponsorship deals were all in place well in advance of the event.

The same argument applies now. It is four years between rugby World Cup events, so why was nothing done? Why did the South African Rugby Union, which apparently — like Fifa — takes a royalty slice out of every sale, not ensure, in line with its loudly voiced patriotic pledge, that “Bok gear” be made here?

The unions too — and especially the clothing and textiles workers’ union, Sactwu — must also shoulder some of the responsibility. It was this union that suffered heavily last year and Cosatu, to which it is affiliated, threatened strike action over the World Cup as a result.

But the federation called this off after brokering a “no strike” deal with Fifa and the local soccer authorities. The quid pro quo was that all post-World Cup memorabilia would be made in South Africa. As a Sactwu official noted at the time: “How many people will want expensive ‘I was there’ shirts.”

This time, amid the usual claims and counter claims, both Cosatu and Sactwu insist there was an agreement; that Saru pledged that 40 per cent of replica rugby jerseys and 70 per cent of all other paraphenalia would be sourced locally. Only there does not appear to be any documentary evidence of this. The percentages quoted by Sactwu have also raised questions among garment workers. “Why just 40 per cent and 70 per cent?” is a common query.

For its part, the rugby body this week insisted that most memorabilia was made locally and that the union was aware of its procurement strategy and had not objected to it. In an official statement, Saru also distanced itself from the actual decisions on ordering. Its licensing agent, Signet, had “contacted various suppliers to manufacture and supply the market with supporter wear apparel”.

Cape Town-based Signet Licensing is a subsidiary of the Primedia Group in which the Cosatu-affiliated Mineworkers’ Investment Company (MIC) has a major stake. Chairman of Primedia is Paul Nkuna, a former treasurer of the National Union of Mineworkers and MIC executive director, Tshidi Modima, is a Primedia non-executive director.

This might seem ironic, but for the fact that this — again — is not the first time that such apparent contradictions have arisen. But just as a blind eye is turned to government trade policies, so too are questions about the often extraordinary conflicts between unions and their investment companies largely ignored.

However, like any companies, Primedia and MIC are in the business of business. And that is to maximise returns to shareholders. To do anything less would amount to a dereliction of their fiduciary duties.

And the trading environment — politically under the control of government — allows for the importation of goods of equal quality at lower prices, so price not patriotism will be the determining factor. But patriotism remains the focus with sports minister Fikile Mbalula reportedly encouraging the Springboks in New Zealand with the cry: “Motherland or death”, a slogan with chilling echoes of the Patria o meurta of Francoist Spain.

The labour movement has kept to much milder slogans such as “Local is Lekker” while encouraging what amounts to a patriotic job creation tax. But more aware unionists want to know why tariff policies, licensing regimes and the role of MIC are not a focus. Until these hard questions are asked, any answers, to again quote Dylan, will just be blowing in the wind.