THE illegal importation and sale of second-hand clothes is a thriving business in Zimbabwe — yet its effects on the textile industry, the economy and health of the population are calamitous.
While some countries have successfully put an end to the practice in order to protect their industries, Zimbabwe’s textile and apparel industries are struggling to survive.
The textile and clothing industry remains under siege while the taxman loses millions through tax evasion by unscrupulous importers. Syndicates involving security details and customs officials are allegedly the common denominator in this flourishing business.
With the growth of the informal market, the number of retailers who sell used clothes has gone up. A large portion of society prefers these used clothes because of their affordability. Used clothes are smuggled into the country, posing a serious challenge not only to the already beleaguered clothing industry and the economy at large but have health implications for end users too.
A thriving business
A recent trip to Forbes Border Post, Mutare, established that the smuggling of second-hand clothes and other items continues to be brisk business and has become a full-time job for locals.
Amidst the hustle and bustle, bargain-hunting shoppers rummage through mountains of clothes and footwear in search of bargains at the famous Sakubva Market in Mutare.
The situation is similar to that at Harare’s Mupendzanhamo market — one of the busiest markets where row upon row of trousers, dresses and undergarments swing from hangers — a typical version of a thrift store, fully stocked with second-hand garments from the West.
Here, stylish suits, sports jerseys and designer labels are all offered at discounted prices, turning second-hand markets into bargain hunter’s paradise.
“These clothes are nice and original, my customers keep on coming,” said a local second-hand vendor at Sakubva Market.
The wholesale marketing of second-hand clothes attracts customers from all over Zimbabwe. Prices for most items range between US$1 and US$20 depending on whether it is just an ordinary piece of clothing, a leather jacket or a formal suit.
Smuggled from Mozambique
The second-hand clothes, including footwear, are packaged in bales (mabhero). Most of the items are donations from developed countries destined for the less privileged in Africa.
Mozambique has been a major beneficiary of such donations over the years.
While smuggling was common along the country’s porous borders through illegal entry points, the syndicates now have the audacity to transport their loot through the heavily manned Forbes Border Post.
Gangs of smugglers are also now a common sight at other border entry points like Sango, Nyamapanda and Mount Selinda border posts.
Investigations by The Sunday Mail Society established that some smugglers have devised new ways of sneaking in contraband clothes through containerised haulage trucks. Various sources told this publication that the syndicates were well-knit and that the network involved customs officials, security personnel and traders.
Trains, long-distance trucks and some public vehicles are also being used to smuggle in these clothes, sources said. Details have emerged of how these racketeers have managed to establish parallel distribution networks in the country for the sale of second-hand clothes.
Under the guise of someone interested in bulk purchases of good second-hand clothes and footwear, we infiltrated one of the smuggling rings following a tip-off. And a trip from Mutare’s Central Business District to Forbes Border Post revealed how easy it is to smuggle contraband from Mozambique.
The “runners”, who mostly target travellers, bragged about how they used their connections on the Zimbabwean and Mozambican sides of the border to smuggle all kinds of goods and how they are connected to law enforcers in the whole process.
While most of the “runners” did not travel to the border, they arranged with haulage truck drivers and bus crews to link them up with connections at Forbes upon payment of a fee.
“When dealing with customs officials the goods are often ‘broken’ down into smaller packages and disguised as personal effects make it easier to smuggle them. And an increasingly popular tactic used by customs officials is undervaluation of imports in the paperwork with the help of clearing agents,” said one of the smugglers.
“If you enjoy good rapport with clearing agents, they help you to reduce the customs duties by giving a lower value to your imports.”
While this is common with people importing machinery, it also provides a loophole for contraband second-hand clothes to be smuggled in. Of course, the security details are also open to bribes.
The investigations further revealed that after each bale of clothes enters the country, mainly through illegal routes, they are unpacked and screened at Sakubva Market, putting them into three categories.
The first category contains relatively good quality clothes. These are dry cleaned and have tags attached to them to make them look new. Category two contains medium quality clothes, which are directly sent to Harare and sold in bulk.
The last category has second-hand clothes that need more touch-ups, including a stitch or two.
Crippling the textile industry
Smuggling of textiles and clothes into Zimbabwe is threatening the survival of the local textile industry.
The cheap contraband undercuts locally produced textiles forcing local textile manufacturers to lose business.
Oxfam, an organisation that does humanitarian work notes that importing second-hand clothes costs Africa an average of US$42,5 million a year – a sum that should probably be invested in the production of fabrics.
In Zimbabwe, the period between 2000 and 2010 was hard for the clothing and textile sector. A report on Clothing and Textiles Industries in Zimbabwe: Analysis of Consumption and Production Trends of Several Key Industries (2004-2014), reports that the sector saw a number of companies closing and people employed in this sector losing their jobs.
In 2015 Government banned the importation of second-hand clothes, saying cheap imports were obstructing local cotton farmers, local clothing makers and retail sellers of Zimbabwe-made goods.
The import ban was part of the effort to aid the industry but was relaxed after it met with complaints not only from vendors but also from buyers, who said the cheap imports were needed so people could clothe themselves affordably.
Industrialist Mr Mike Shoniwa, who runs fabric companies around the country, believes that setting up a real industrialisation policy that will encourage the creation of factories for the production of clothing will go a long way in eradicating second-hand clothing.
The Zimbabwe Republic Police in Mutare are deploying security details on the borderline to counter the smugglers.
Manicaland provincial police spokesperson Inspector Tavhiringwa Kakohwa said he would only comment on specific smuggling cases where perpetrators are arrested but cannot rule out cases of smuggling, adding that they were deploying their personnel along the borderline.
The Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (ZIMRA) could not be reached for a comment at the time of going to print – but their initiatives with the Zimbabwe Republic Police seem to be bearing fruits. The taxman and police have put in place strategies that make smuggling of second hand clothes a profitless enterprise.
Initiatives like border patrols, road blocks, site visits, physical searches, whistle-blowers’ initiatives and cargo monitoring will go a long way in thwarting these nefarious activities.
Health experts have warned users of used clothes to be cautious in patronising them due to its negative health implications. Dr Adesina Bandira, a physician, cautioned users on the negative effects and health implications of using second hand clothes.
“Buyers have no idea of the health status of the first hand user before it was imported,” he said, adding that users of fairly used cloths were prone to skin infections such as candidiasis, fungus skin disease and allergic skin disease among others.
Candidiasis disease is a fungal infection of any of the candida (yeast) species, while furunculosis is the presence of boils.
“You cannot compare any other disease with candidiasis infections; the candida is notorious to treat even after washing the clothes; there is every tendency that the first hand user might have had candidiasis infections.
“Also, wearing of fairly used undergarments is risky, one can be infected with fungus skin or bacterial infection. Fungal infections are easy to contract but very difficult to eradicate, the chemical used on preserving the clothes is also harmful and some people react to it,” he said.
He also said although some will buy and disinfect them by washing and ironing; others will buy because of the perceived nice odour not knowing the health implications. The physician stressed that the psychological implication of buying second hand clothes by parents for their children could lead to developing second class mentality.–sundaymail.co.zw