INSIDE LABOUR: The 'Buy SA' job creation myth

That old saying that the more things change, the more they stay the same was underscored yet again at the recent Jobs Summit. And the person responsible was President Cyril Ramaphosa when he presented "the most direct way" to create jobs.

He stressed that this most direct way was "for South Africans and South African companies…to buy only South African products". For those in the labour movement with longer memories, this was a case of déjà vu: it was exactly the same message preached in 2001.

That message was delivered mainly by government at the launch of the R60m Proudly South African campaign that had been triggered by calls, from within the labour movement, for some action to be taken to protect local industry from unfair competition. It kicked off with an initial R7m input from the department of trade and industry (DTI). 

There was a degree of irony in that initial contribution, since the DTI was, at the time, generally held responsible for allowing the flood of cheaper imports that crippled, in particular, much the local textile and garment industry. It is a manufacturing sector has never recovered.

However, then general secretary of the SA Textile and Garment Workers’ Union, Ebrahim Patel, hailed the move as "going to the heart of nation building". But several other trade unionists expressed doubts, not only about the efficacy of such a campaign, but also about its nationalistic orientation.

Why the scepticism?

It was pointed out that similar campaigns had been launched and largely failed to make any impact in counties such as Britain and Australia. As a result, there was considerable scepticism about this appeal to patriotism over price.

Even then Cosatu president, Willie Madisha, and the then-general secretary of the National Council of Trade unions, Cunningham Ngcukana, who were appointed to the board of Proudly SA, worried about it being a simple 'Buy SA' campaign. This was not what the unions had originally envisaged when they floated the idea of promoting South African products.

The unions wanted the stress to be on not importing goods from countries that did not adhere to labour standards — on wages and conditions — at least on a par with those in South Africa. Here was an implied demand that the government revise its neo-liberal, free market policies on the basis of truly fair trade.

At time Ngcukana noted: "There are a number of ideological and practical problems and we are going to have to be aware of them." However, on balance, "it is better that the unions are on board".

Gwede Mantashe, then general secretary of the Union Union of Mineworkers, agreed, but felt that a danger existed that such campaigns could "encourage xenophobia".

Prove your patriotism

What was of particular concern to unions and other critics was the fact that Proudly SA, headed by marketing consultant Martin Feinstein and talk show host Tim Modise, stressed that the campaign was "not anti-imports". This put the onus squarely on the consumers who were being told that they had to prove their patriotism by their purchases.

The question was then asked: is this not just a Proudly Xenophobic campaign? One that has the idea of patriotism at its core, primarily putting the onus on consumers to prove that patriotism trumps price?

Amid considerable fanfare, including television ads, the 2001 campaign got underway and continued to limp into the next decade and beyond. Companies bearing the "swish" logo in the colours of the national flag then continued to act as the system demands in a competitive environment: they bought and sold goods at the cheapest possible price. And that meant cut-price imports.

Even brand name garments that were once associated with Cape Town and Durban turned out now to be outsourced and manufactured in China, Bangladesh or Taiwan. The world, it became clear, was awash with surpluses, certainly in the garment sector; the "race to the bottom" was well underway.

The irony

Apart from occasional protests, nothing was done although, in 2010, under pressure from garment workers, Cosatu again promoted a 'Buy SA' campaign. But union officials admitted privately that price remained the determining factor for increasingly hard-pressed consumers.

The same applies today, although government has pledged greater local procurement and several major companies have joined a "Buy SA Circle".

However, this is also not without its irony: among the companies are beverage producers who were the beneficiaries of recent large-scale imports of cut-price sugar that led to protests by local producers.

Whether such "buy local" pledges by companies can be met is, at best, moot. And since there was no mention of what might be done about the continued dumping on the domestic market of everything from poultry to biscuits and canned goods, local producers will continue to suffer from unfair competition.

Cash-strapped consumers, many of them surviving at bare subsistence level, will also continue to have price as the priority.

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