Many years ago, on a visit to the Eastern Cape hosted by the Frame textile group – then one of the top performers in a troubled sector – I had the chilling experience of visiting the factory version of a ghost town.

As with many operations in the clothing and textile industry at the time, the factory had been closed down. The machines were still threaded and simply looked as if they had been switched off at the end of a busy day in preparation for their machine minders to return the next morning. Like tens of thousands like them across the country, they never did.

 Whenever I drive past Mooi River and view the skeleton of what was the Mooi River Textiles factory which was one of the main employers in a town that is one of South Africa’s worst examples of poverty and degradation, I wonder what happened to all those who had both skills and jobs. Since then, even Frame’s name has been added to the long list of textile, clothing and footwear companies that gave up the fight.

In the past six years alone, we are told, around 69 000 jobs have been lost in the sector. Prior to that, the number was far higher. Studies suggest that as much as 70 percent of this retrenched workforce was never rehired.

Those about which I have written and come to admire at the University of KwaZulu-Natal for their work in the informal sector suggest that large numbers of destitute people filtered into the informal sector, some using sewing skills to produce garments for a stipend.

Back in the heady days of trade liberalisation and rejoining the global economy, tariffs were slashed and short sighted and greedy clothing retailers joined the rush to China. I believe that it was something of a Pied Piper of Hamelin scenario. We lost a whole generation of companies and, now that government is waving an olive branch and offering incentives all in the name of job creation, it is hard to see that it will be possible to recreate a viable sector from the ashes of the past.

In the days when the textile sector was teetering, the argument was that local labour was too expensive and costs too high. But the cost of unemployment has been higher still.

Today, those that have survived are largely cut, make and trim operations, sourcing their fabrics from overseas in the absence of a meaningful textile sector. Without any vertical integration and no real value chain, they are effectively islands in extremely choppy waters and vulnerable to an ever plummeting rand.

Both provincial and local government speak of re-inventing the textile and clothing sector.  But the brutal truth is that we may have lost too much. Apart from specialist manufacturers, a local clothing and textile sector may no longer be sustainable. Our pool of talent has shrunk and the skilled have not passed on their know-how to the next generation.

Perhaps the only comfort for those of us who filled many a column centrimetre with dire warnings of the demise of one of KwaZulu-Natal’s main sectors, is that we were right.

That’s not to say that large textile and clothing companies were innocent when it came to various labour related issues and re-investing in the sector. But, imperfect as they were, they were sacrificed on the altar of globalisation along with their employees.

A decade or two after the clothing industry began to die, I believe that the future for job creation now lies with small business rather than bringing back large clothing factories with hundreds of machinists. South Africans need to shrug off their sterile culture of entitlement and begin to do things for themselves – and that includes creating their own jobs.

But, once again, can a small business based clothing sector that cannot produce the same volumes as large Chinese operations stand a chance of surviving? Can small business is in this segment of the market stitch together a business plan that enables it to be sustainable, let alone competitive?