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Selling Secondhand Clothes is a Bustling Trade in Mfuleni

by | May 31, 2022

There is a growing number of secondhand clothing resellers and vintage stores in the formal market, as well as vendors and markets in the informal economy. We know very little about the origins of the garments, how they end up in our local thrift stores and on roadsides, and what this trade means for South African township dwellers?

To explore these questions, I visited four secondhand clothing traders in Mfuleni – Nonnie Diwu, Shirley Beja, Tabisa Ndandani, and Thembikile Solontsi – to gain insight into the secondhand clothing market in the township where I live. Most secondhand clothing sellers are located in bustling places such as taxi ranks, supermarket entrances, and markets, because there are lots of potential customers passing by each day.

Street scenes of people selling secondhand clothes to make a living in Mfuleni

Secondhand vendors position themselves on busy streets where there is lots of foot traffic

The first person I talked to was Shirley Beja, who was introduced to secondhand trading when she was looking for household furniture. Shirley lives in one of the oldest areas of Khayelitsha – B Section – and has been selling secondhand clothing for many years. She sources most of her stock from flea markets and car boot sales. She also buys stock from families who are emigrating and who sell their belongings on social media.

Shirley Beja, right, with a customer

“Selling pre-owned apparel is not child’s play,” she says. “It takes time to know the right places to source from, to understand what sells, and to have the patience and understanding to interact with different people.”

“And, you have to be prepared to go down on your knees and crawl through a stack of clothing in search of the best items, especially if your customers have preferences,” says Shirley.

Shirley Beja’s stall in Khayelitsha

The vendors have good days and bad days. For some of them, it’s a bad day when items remain unsold, as this might eventually lead to waste. But for someone like Shirley, who’s been in the game for some time, unsold items are not a train smash. She came up with an innovative plan to pack unsold garments into bundles and sell them as packs to her loyal customers. The rest of the vendors mentioned that they donate unsellable items to people in their communities.

Tabisa Ndandani has been in the business of selling secondhand clothes for a decade. In 2019, she joined The Clothing Bank’s social upliftment and entrepreneurship programme and has been sourcing clothing from The Clothing Bank ever since. “Sometimes business can be very slow and I only get to sell one item a day, or worse, one item a week, but some days are very busy, especially on the 15th and 25th of the month,” Tabisa continues, “There are also times when you have to lower prices because people don’t want to pay the price you’ve put on an item.”

Tabisa Ndandani at her stall in Mfuleni

Covid-19 lockdowns have been tough. During the worst months of the pandemic, business was very slow. It was difficult for the vendors to go out to source stock, and they couldn’t go to their normal spots to sell the clothes. Slowly, things are normalising.

Growing up, I only saw women selling secondhand clothing. Very few men in the Mfuleni community are in the business of reselling secondhand clothing. So, meeting Thembekile Solontsi took me by surprise.

Thembekile’s stall is in front of a building complex in Mfuleni near the old taxi rank. Because the rate of unemployment in South Africa is so high, many young people, like Thembekile, need to create opportunities for themselves. After many attempts to secure a job, he started selling secondhand clothing for as little as R15 a garment.

I sell clothing that I get for free from people, but sometimes I have to do some chores for them first so they can give me the clothes in return. As a young man, it’s not my ideal job but it puts bread on the table.

As the saying goes, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

Some vendors sell an assortment of other items in addition to clothing.

The clothes that people donate to Thembekile aren’t always in excellent condition. Most of the time the garments are worn out and ruined. Because he doesn’t have the skill to fix or repair them, he often burns the clothes he can’t sell.

A young boy and a woman transport a deconstructed streetside stall

Right across from Thembekile is an elderly lady who didn’t want me to mention her name. “On windy days like today it becomes a struggle to sit in one place and wait for customers because the clothes get blown away and they get covered with sand,” she said. On rainy days, they don’t even get the chance to put up clothes for sale because there’s no shelter.

On windy days, the clothing often gets covered in sand

As I was finishing up with my interviews, I saw a pile of clothes on the pavement next to the Shoprite supermarket entrance. I decided to take look and that’s where I met the amazing Nonnie Diwu.

When she saw me looking at her clothes, Nonnie shared insights about the origins of her stock. “What I sell comes from as far as Canada and I sell them at the most affordable price. Have you ever come across anyone who sells knitwear for as little as R10?” asks Nonnie.

Nonnie Diwu at her stall in Mfuleni

For her, the country of origin means the clothes she gets are of good quality. She buys her clothing in pre-packed bales, which disadvantages. Some items are clean and others are stained, meaning the wearer would need to get rid of the stains first and that influences her prices.

While doing the interviews I came across many brands such as H&M, Woolworths and Zara. I also saw many that were unknown to me like Vision, Neutral Territory, nikita, LA PAMPA by Noa, and some items with a Woolmark certification label.

Many vendors sell a mixture of well known and unknown brands.

As much as the sustainable fashion movement is changing the perception of secondhand clothing amongst some people, in the Mfuleni township people still associate buying secondhand with people who cannot afford to buy new. With the rise in fast fashion, making cheap, new clothing accessible, more people are opting to buy new clothes instead of secondhand. For people who can afford to buy new, this is the option they choose.

The trade of used clothing is a billion-dollar global industry and the market has been predicted to double to reach $51 billion by 2023. Across the African continent, secondhand clothing resale is very common, with countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Kenya among the biggest markets for secondhand clothes. In fact, 70% of global secondhand donations end up in Africa. The primary source of these clothes is the US, Canada, and the UK. But in South Africa, we have a slightly different secondhand clothing market. It is not legal to import secondhand clothing, except for essentials, like winter coats.

What I learnt through speaking to the vendors is that they are – without getting any credit – contributing to a thriving circular textile economy. For them, selling these preloved clothes is a way of creating a livelihood that allows them to provide for their families. Unknowingly, these vendors are extending the life cycle of garments and playing their part in doing what’s best for the planet. We should all be taking notes.

  • Cover image: Tabisa Ndandani at her stall in Mfuleni, photographed by Jackie May
  • Images taken by the Twyg team on a visit to the secondhand clothing vendors in Mfuleni
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