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The emperor’s new clothes - A political economy study of the South African textiles and clothing industry

Takala-Greenish, Lotta



The decline of South African textiles and clothing has been explained as the outcome of different influences depending on various ideological and methodological inclinations as well as theoretical traditions. For example, the rise in labour inflexibility or costs, or increased import and cost competition, are perceived to explain both South African and global textiles and clothing trends. Though these are important features of the decline, other factors precede and contribute to the poor production, trade, or employment trends, suggesting that it is misleading to focus on a few dominant factors. Instead, exploring the nature, evolution and the background to multiple, shifting, and interconnected causes, enables the emergence of new research questions concerned with the importance of situating the industry decline within a political, historical and structural setting.

The findings point to the need to reconceptualise industry evolution as an outcome of a specific labour process in South African textiles and clothing, moving away from a homogenous or cost-based categorisation of labour. It is also argued that the particular developments be seen as the outcome and an integral (albeit marginalised) part of the SA economy, rooting explanations for sector trends within a unique set of industry processes and tensions. These lead the study to challenge the relevance of existing policy and production remedies, and to argue that prominent theoretical debates around sector development, such as the GVC or the information imperfection approach, are limited in their explanatory power and in their ability to generate appropriate research questions. The research concludes that a case-driven understanding of the complexities of the industry decline opens the space for new insights in theoretical and methodological approaches to exploring and explaining textiles and clothing industry development in South Africa, with relevance for broader debates on industrialisation.

Key words: textiles, clothing, South Africa, industrialisation, industrial policy, labour process, global value chain, trade liberalisation


Takala-Greenish, L. (2015). The emperor’s new clothes - A political economy study of the South African textiles and clothing industry. (Thesis). University of the London, School of Oriental and African Studies. Retrieved from

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