Made in South Africa; Bought on a Budget


“I think buying local is unrealistic for people who aren’t bourgeois,” Antonia* says. And there’s something like condemnation in her tone. I cringe. Because I buy local. Of course, my parents are professionals and I do go to university (the same could be said of Antonia, too) but my latest purchases were a R350 suede jacket and a R90 off-the-shoulder top. Both were made in South Africa.

However, buying local has become so infused with vintage markets lit up with fairy lights; boutiques on Long and Kloof; and stackable silver rings that go for R400 a piece. And this is a reality — but only for some.

As globalisation and capitalism have shown their dirtier sides, it’s become all the rage to show off conscious lifestyle choices. It’s in the Woolworth’s fridge of vegan meals. It’s in the shopping bags made of recycled materials. And it’s in the latest linen shirt that’s been made in a Cape Town boutique.

All these things are relentlessly marketed as conscious, ethical choices that people can buy. The elite’s backing of “conscious” has made an effect on the rest: it’s fashionable and very, very desirable. Never mind the few oddballs who never left Edgars to shop at Zara, buying local is trending now because the elite has made it so. And they’ve made it seem like it’s only for them, that only they can save our flailing textiles industry.

Ethical practices like buying local or vegetarianism have been captured by the elite. They’re being made inaccessible much like prime land in traditionally working-class areas. There’s an instant charm about night markets that sparkle, serve wine and have live music. Who wouldn’t want to “adopt” a lion cub for R460? Feed one child for a year for R600? Buy a canvas bag for R60 to support the underprivileged school? All great ideas; some affordable — but only for some.

Buying local is about supporting the South African economy but, by excluding potential markets the way this appropriation of individual activism does, this is undermined. If it’s fashionable to have a conscience nowadays, what happens when the fad dies? Fashionable may seem like a good thing for conscious choices but in the long run, as prices rise alongside popularity, could this exclusion be more of a death sentence?

The merits of popularising buying local are obvious: increased demand, increased supply, increased employment, increased equality. But if we stop the shopping cart at “increased demand”, we can clearly see increased prices. And that puts a large market of working-class and emerging middle-class South Africans off.

“When I see that [sticker proclaiming the good is locally-made] I think ‘oh my god, it’s going to be expensive,’” says Laaiqah, a 21-year-old student.  Locally-produced goods are so associated with quality that her expectation is that they are unaffordable and, as she says, “I don’t have freedom of finances.”

Antonia agrees. Buying local is not affordable, she feels. She brings up an interesting comparison to vegetarianism and veganism: it’s an “exclusionary” practice. “Ethical decisions,” she elaborates,” are constrained by income”.

This is problematic because sustaining the trendiness of buying local is the key to maximising this new fashion’s advantages. And you know when purchases are both popular and sustainable? When you hardly think once about buying them. When you don’t notice the big yellow “Made in South Africa” sticker. When you don’t have to check labels to see if a product is South African. When the practice is so engrained, its trendiness is irrelevant, unthought-of. After all, some fashions do become styles that last. That may be a long way off but there are steps that we can take towards that future now. It’s too easy to relegate these problems to our beleaguered government. We need to put our money where our mouth is and support local production so that the demand and supply meet at affordable prices.

Because there are ways to buy local without bursting the bank. Magical things called sales; the good fortune of living in South Africa’s factory shop capital. Better still, there are stores that are normalising locally-made goods. Antonia and Laaiqah were both surprised to hear that Mr Price and Pick ‘n Pay Clothing, cheapie staples, stock locally-produced clothes. These stores haven’t always shouted about it; you’d only have noticed if you checked the labels. But they’re there. And if you compare prices, you’ll find that the price difference isn’t always that great when you buy local; in fact, sometimes it’s not even there.

Practices like these mean that we can buy local on a tight budget. The trick is to uncapture the perception of exclusivity from those pretty boutique stores and bright little stickers that so innocuously proclaim “Made in South Africa.”

*This name has been changed to maintain the interviewee’s anonymity.

Jenna Solomon

Jenna is a journalism, African studies and social development graduate. She writes about active citizenship and lifestyle in South Africa.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *