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When did the problem of cheap textile imports from the East first emerge?

In England, local weavers, spinners, dyers, shepherds and farmers petitioning their MP’s and in turn the United Kingdom government for a ban on the importation, and later the sale of woven cotton goods; which they eventually achieved via the 1700 and 1721 with the Calico Acts.  These acts banned the importation and later the sale of finished pure cotton produce; but did not restrict the importation of raw cotton, sale or production of cloth.

Without them knowing it, some 317 years ago; this simple act to protect the interest of local artisans, sparked the single most important socio economic event in history – The Industrial Revolution.

Knowing the demand for the fabric being produced by hand on looms in the East, clever people set about to design and build machines that would be able to produce the volume and at the speed to compete with the threat that they faced. This changed the entire socio-economic structure of the world.

 The direct result was the birth of the middle class; a fast and significant improvement in earning potential, living conditions, health and eduction; Prior to this the majority living in squalid conditions in a feudal system.

The benefits of the system were; that every other related industry had to suddenly adapt to this leap in scale. Energy to fuel these great Iron beasts:  Iron for the machines, machine building, chemicals for the dying, cement for the factories and gas for lighting. This all needed many hands to drive this mighty new  industry, hitherto the word “Industry”, had not yet been invented.

England now had a huge range of products to export to the world. Their colonies would provide a ready-market;  as well as to provide the land, labour through slavery, sunshine and water to grow cotton. Without the cotton, the machines were worthless. So the southern states of North America suddenly became very important to England.

South Africa had been snapped up by the British, when the Dutch East India Company went into decline and left the Cape in 1798; their main reason was to block the French because of the significant strategic position of the Cape on the route to the East (Pre Suez Canal). The objective was simply as a refreshment station. However, diamonds and gold resulted in a significant change in priority. Spices, slave and textiles, had been the most lucrative up to that stage. This was quite a win-fall.

The rest is history, but suffice to say, it was never in the interest of England to share their new-found technology with its colonies. A one sided arrangement of continuous growing the cotton and then buying back the finished goods of textiles, and even clothing, were the common rules of engagement.

At the same time the industrial revolution was playing out, across the world, in the Cape Colony and the Boer Republics, our forefathers, were engaged in all sorts of skirmishes and wars. Things just never settled down so as to have the developments happening in Europe take root.

 By the time the British took over the Cape from the Dutch East India company in 1806, England had 2500 productive weaving looms, by 1929 they had 55 500 and by 1857 they had 250 000 weaving looms turning cotton, wool and linen into fine fabric. And then turning it into a wide range of value added products. Garment with fine lace, embroidery provided work for unskilled women who would have otherwise been unemployable. Factories subcontracted home based artisans in what they called; “The putting out system’ (subcontracting), later whole groups were contracted to work in the factories (labour brokering). This was primarily to avoid the influence of the guilds. The guilds were essentially there to look after quality standards, processes, materials, authentication and the treatment of labour. This system is still in place in the UK. It however never took off in South Africa.

By the time the South Africa became a union in 1910 and the later a republic in 1961, the die had been cast, to focus on mining and agriculture. Primarily the white elite with land, power and money, exploited black working class as labour on their farms and mines. Again it was not in their interest to develop people through education and training; beyond the level that would keep them productive, but not enough to be self sufficient. The masses working on the lands and mines were no better off than the 66 000 slaves that passed through the Cape at the hands of the Dutch East India Company.

Thankfully this all changed in 1994, when the majority of South Africans have a chance to have the opportunities and wherewithal to make something of themselves.

The long and short of it is that the Industrial Revolution did come to South Africa, but it only stopped at the door of the rich and powerful.

Copyright Kevin Mansfield 16th November 2017 ©