Unpaid school uniform makers occupy Gauteng social development offices

Sewing co-operatives delivered thousands of school uniforms to learners in need, but the department is disowning them

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About a dozen people from sewing cooperatives across Gauteng occupied the offices of the Gauteng Department of Social Development in Johannesburg on Monday night because they have not been paid. Photos: Masego Mafata

  • Sewing co-operatives have not been paid for thousands of uniforms they delivered to the Gauteng Department of Social Development for learners in need.
  • The department says a separate tender is in place for school uniforms and the co-ops were wrongly appointed by officials at the department.
  • The department’s school uniform project is the subject of a forensic audit.

About a dozen people from sewing co-operatives in Gauteng occupied the Gauteng Department of Social Development offices on Monday night, demanding that the department pay them for thousands of uniforms they made and delivered to schools earlier this year. They spent the night in a boardroom.

On Tuesday afternoon, police arrived in five vans to remove them. Police negotiated for about an hour before the co-op members begrudgingly left the building, fearing arrest.

On Wednesday morning, their protest continued, picketing outside the building, holding placards reading: “Give us our money.”

The sewing co-operatives are part of a school uniform project, consisting of small groups of people who make the uniforms and then supply them free-of-charge to learners in need.

GroundUp has seen a list of 33 co-ops that, according to a source in the department, have not been paid for their work.

The co-op members told GroundUp that issues with payment arose after the appointment of new contractors by the department, who in turn appointed the co-ops as sub-contractors. Previously, the co-ops dealt directly with the department.

Department spokesperson Themba Gadeba told GroundUp that the root of the problem is that the co-ops “were hand-picked by officials to manufacture school uniforms, despite a tender being in place”.

Gadeba said an investigation into the “irregular appointment” of the co-ops is ongoing to “ascertain who the culprits are and to verify the alleged work”.

A memo, signed by former department head Matilda Gasela on 26 March, announced that a firm called Open Water was to investigate “irregular expenditure and irregularities” in the programme.

In a letter to department officials, Gasela said that officials instructed co-ops to produce uniforms against the instruction of the “executive authority”.

But a source in the department says that the co-ops have proof of delivery for the uniforms to schools and that no one from the department told them to stop manufacturing.

Some co-ops were forced to go into debt to purchase supplies, but they have still not been paid for the uniforms they completed.

The programme has been operating for years but has faced “challenges”. In 2022/23, the programme delivered 5,000 school uniforms against a target of 150,000, according to the department’s Annual Report. This underperformance led the department to appoint new contractors to subcontract the co-ops, causing fresh issues with the co-operatives.

Making the uniforms starts in November for delivery to schools between January and February, after which the co-ops would receive payment from the department. But members of several co-ops say this has not been the case this year.

“This is the first time that they’ve taken so long to pay us. We borrowed money to do this work and we need to be paid so we can clear our debt,” said a co-op member who wanted to be identified only as Maria.

A pensioner, she started a sewing project in her Soweto community and employs five people. She has been making school uniforms for the department since 2015.

“In previous years, we used to receive a deposit from the department to buy materials. But lately, we have had to buy materials and pay people using our own money. I had to borrow R90,000 this year, which I am still owing. I haven’t been able to pay the people I work with and most of them depend on this money because this is our biggest order,” she said.

Another co-op member, a 66-year-old who supports her two unemployed children and four grandchildren, has been sewing school uniforms since 2012. She says the change in the procurement system is to blame for the delay in payment. She asked not to be named.

“Most of the co-ops are now sub-contractors. We were working fine as co-ops with the department. They would give us a purchase order when we got the job and once we were finished sewing, we used that purchase order to submit an invoice. There would be delays in payments sometimes, but we’ve never had to wait this long. It’s going on three months,” she said.


We spoke to eight co-ops. According to them, changes to the department’s procurement process, which included moving to a tender system in 2022, has meant the department now appoints main contractors, to which subcontractors are answerable.

The co-ops say officials from the department’s regional offices gave them documents to sign, which included the scope of work and the names and signatures of the main contractors to which they had been allocated.

Some co-ops said they were not given any documents to sign, but were told by regional officials to “go ahead and make the uniforms, the contract is on its way”.

One co-op manager said they were told their money would be paid to the main contractor, but no memorandum of understanding was done between them and the main contractor until 25 March, after the work had been completed and after the co-ops started asking for payment.

A number of sewing co-ops hire premises from where they operate and they say the money they make from the school uniforms covers a large portion of that rental.

Two women broke down in tears at the department’s offices on Tuesday, recounting how they had been forced to give up their work space because they were unable to pay rent.

“I don’t have a work space now. I am unemployed. Who is going to support my children? How am I going to afford rent and groceries if I don’t have an income?” one of them asked, fighting back tears.

Regarding monies owed, one co-op manager said he was awaiting a payment from the department of almost R300,000. “I sell my jerseys to the department at R205 per unit and I made and delivered 1,447 jerseys,” he said.

Co-op managers said they are beginning to suspect that some of the main contractors are ghost companies. They fear they will never be paid.

Police arrived on Tuesday to remove members of sewing co-operatives from the Gauteng Department of Social Development’s boardroom, which the co-op members occupied on Monday night. Listed on the whiteboard are some of the group’s demands.

TOPICS:  Social Development mismanagement

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