When the South African rugby squad gathered in Johannesburg to bid farewell to the nation before heading off to the World Cup, thousands of supporters thronged Nelson Mandela Square wearing the famous green and gold Springbok jersey to give their side a rousing send off.

Given the passion that South Africans have for their rugby – added to the fact that the Springboks are the defending champions – such exuberant scenes last Thursday before an oval ball had even been kicked were not surprising.

Yet it would seem that not all are happy with the South Africa Rugby Union’s preparations for the tournament, which begins on Friday in New Zealand.

On Tuesday, Joe Mcgluwa, a member of parliament, was quoted as saying he would refuse to wear the national team’s jersey, claiming that replica shirts being sold to Springbok devotees were made in China at the expense of the African nation’s beleagured textile and clothing industry.

Tony Ehrenreich, an official with the Congress of South Africa Trade Unions, SA’s biggest labour federation, joined the fray by accusing SARU of having no regard for the national priority of creating jobs.

As SARU risked receiving a mauling, the rugby body put out a statement.

A significant percentage of SARU supporter wear is sourced from local manufacturers… SARU has gone to great lengths to ensure that supporters are provided with a range of supporters wear which is affordable and accessible to all South Africans.

It is important to note that since last year, SARU has been in constant engagement with the South African Textile Workers Union (SACTWU) on the issue of our product and manufacturing plans for this important year, including SARU’s local procurement strategy post 2011. SACTWU have not expressed any concerns to date regarding SARU’s proposal and appear to have been satisfied as to the rationale provided in the split between the local and imported product in our market.

The spat is unlikely to dampen the support South African rugby fans will devote to their team. But it has put attention on broader economic issues.

The first is the resentment that China’s economic drive into Africa – through the import of cheap manufactured goods to the continent and the export of African commodities east – is causing among some locals.

China is South Africa’s largest trading partner and it has been rapidly building up its business across Africa over the past decade. Yet the burgeoning trade flows have been accompanied by concerns among some that the flood of cheap Chinese goods is costing jobs and that, too often, Chinese firms use workers from their home country at the expense of Africans.

South Africa boasts Africa’s largest economy and joined the elite group of Bric countries this year, taking a seat alongside the Asian giant. But the size of its economy and its growth rates are dwarfed by those of China and, like its African peers, it is struggling to battle high unemployment and widespread poverty.

The other issue the jersey dispute raises is the poor health and lack of competitiveness of the country’s clothing industry.

The sector has been in decline for years as costs have risen and competition has increased with the economy opening up since the end of apartheid.

This year, scores of clothing factories have been forced to close and thousands of jobs have been lost after factory owners were told to start meeting minimum wage requirements or shut down.

That controversy put the spotlight on one of the core of questions facing South Africa: how to be competitive, attract greater investment and create jobs for a largely unskilled workforce while at the same time forcing employers to comply with rigid labour laws.

Jacob Zuma, the president, had declared 2011 to be “the year of job creation” but the reality is that unemployment actually rose from 25 per cent to 25.7 per cent in the first half of this year.

The challenge for the government is to identify sectors where South Africa can compete and which are likely to generate jobs, while the business community wants to see more flexible labour regulations to help retain competitiveness.

But with policy uncertainty blamed for stymieing investment and a president criticised for weak leadership, the betting man would give the ageing Springboks a far greater chance of retaining the Webb Ellis trophy than Zuma’s government of coming up with a panacea to address the country’s increasingly pressing socioeconomic problems.

Related reading:
South Africa & the Brics: honesty pays, beyondbrics
South African nationalisation: business speaks out, beyondbrics

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