Wupperthal, in the Western Cape Province, is home to the oldest shoe factory in South Africa. And if a hall of fame for prominent sales agents were to be built, former President Nelson Mandela and musical legend David Kramer would arguably feature with the founder, and German missionary, Johann Gottlieb Leipoldt, who started the enterprise in 1836.
Leipoldt and a fellow German missionary of the Rhenish Missionary Society, Theobald von Wurmb, founded the town of Wupperthal in the remote Tra-Tra valley on the edge of the Cederberg Wilderness in that year.
The factory is still housed in the original building set up by Leipoldt. Some of the tools and lasts are originals brought from Germany in the early 19th century.
At the height of its popularity, the shoe factory created jobs for between 42 and 46 skilled cobblers to manufacture the famous Wupperthal handsewn veldskoene (traditional Afrikaans soft suede shoes), which are famous for their comfort and good craftsmanship. Kramer and his love for the red suede shoes, which were his trademark, made those veldskoene famous with his Volkswagen TV advertisements. The veldskoene were also immortalized by his song about ‘rooi veldskoene’.
Mandela and Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, the then minister of welfare and population development, visited the Wupperthal shoe factory in the late 1990’s and Mandela received his leather shoes from Arnold Gertse, the manager of the factory.
Mandela promptly put his new gift to use by wearing it.
By faxing the outline of their feet to the factory, customers can still order the shoes for between R320 ($38) and R400 ($47).
Tourism is a growing industry for Wupperthal, particularly during the Namaqualand flower season in August and September. There is cross pollination between international tourism and the shoe factory. The shoe factory is arguably Wupperthal’s most famous export product, luring thousands of visitors from Europe and Asia to visit this secluded valley.
And when they come to Wupperthal, they usually ask for directions to the shoe factory, where many of them purchase a pair of individually crafted shoes, like Mandela and Kramer did before them.
This factor has become a pivotal one in the survival and growth of the shoe factory, which has survived 176 years of economic turmoil, hardships and several logistical challenges.Tourism minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk announced in April that 8,339,354 international tourists visited South Africa in 2011. One of the two most visited provinces was the Western Cape. The United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, the Netherlands and France were South Africa’s top-five overseas tourism markets.
Bishop Emanuel Temmers, a former minister at the Moravian Church in Wupperthal, who pastored the church from 1904 to 1951, was a major force in transforming the shoe factory to a thriving international business, according to Willie Strassberger.
Strassberger and his eldest son, Heinie, masterminded the idea of establishing sales agents in other parts of South Africa, Namibia and even Germany. The comfort of the shoes, their longevity and the fact that they are easy to wear, were major selling points. Successors to Strassberger and his son used the same marketing ploys.
Mark Densel, former manager of the shoe factory, marketed the Wupperthal shoes internationally with some success at the turn of the century. The shoe factory still has an outlet in Clanwilliam. Denver Grauman, current minister of the Moravian Church, said the Wupperthal Shoe Factory had outlets in many other towns and also in Namibia, where the shoes were extremely popular.
Gertse, though, bemoans the fact that challenging logistics is limiting their growth. The isolated village is 300 kilometers from Cape Town and only accessible by a gravel road from Clanwilliam over Pakhuis Pass.
“When we make one trip to Cape Town to buy leather, glue and accessories, it will cost us R2,000,” he says.
“It is vital for us to establish a shop in Cape Town,” he adds.
Apart from Colin Zimri, who has been at the factory for over a decade, most of the other workers are third-generation craftsmen, like Mervyn Valentyn and Gerhard Farao. Gertse, who has been at the factory for 37 years, started his apprenticeship at the age of 16 under the close scrutiny of a shoe-master of decades—his uncle Piet Gertse.
“The establishment of other cheaper competitors on a massive scale, like those produced by China, has become a threat to the continual growth of the Wupperthal-shoe,” says Gertse.
The factory building still belongs to the Moravian Church, but the proceeds from the purchases benefit the workers as well as a community trust that was set up to support the 1,500 inhabitants of the town.
One of the dangers besetting an entrepreneur in a secluded town is what one can call “Waiting for Godot-complacency.”
It is passively hoping for divine intervention without benefitting from a business plan and a marketing campaign, and without putting the proverbial nose to the grindstone.
But Gertse and the Wupperthal community have been proactive. They partnered with influential friends in order to grow the factory.
Bishop Temmers said a few years ago, Chris Nissen, a former Western Cape leader of the ANC, invested a few hundred thousand rand in expanding and growing the shoe factory.
Nissen’s father in law was Martin Wessels—a former administrative head of the Moravian Church in South Africa—and as a benefactor, Nissen assisted the factory in order to maximize its impact on job creation and sustenance in Wupperthal.
Bishop Temmers said the shoe factory has survived some potentially crippling setbacks. One of them involved the Strassbergers. There was a little-publicized fall-out between Willie Strassberger and the Wupperthal community. Strassberger left Wupperthal after the break-up with inhabitants, and Heinie established a shoe factory copying the Wupperthal template in Clanwilliam.
“That was a major setback for the Wupperthal shoe factory, partially because Strassberger’s shoe factory is much easier accessible than Wupperthal’s factory,” said Bishop Temmers.
Gertse is aware of the challenges, and therefore Wupperthal’s shoe factory has branched out to other forms of leather sales that includes handbags and purses. Most sales of shoes, handbags and purses are to foreign visitors.
Homesick ex-pats in England, Australia and Germany, regularly order shoes, part of the life blood of the famous factory. But that’s not enough.
Wupperthal’s greatest challenge is to ‘take the shoe factory to the people if the people cannot come to the shoe factory’.
They also have to embrace the change in the foreign tourism landscape by focusing a marketing drive on the new emerging markets.
The increase in the country’s tourism arrivals in 2011 was driven by a 14.6% growth from the emerging markets of Asia—with a 24% increase in arrivals from China and a 26% increase in arrivals from India.
Van Schalkwyk recently promised that South Africa would continue to invest in marketing the country to India and China, adding that South African Airways’ launch in January of direct flights between Johannesburg and Beijing would add to the growth.
Gertse says the greatest single challenge to the shoe factory is to improve its visibility amongst Capetonians and foreign tourists to the city.
They are contemplating plans to establish a ‘Wupperthal-foothold’ in Cape Town, an outlet where they can sell shoes in order to take the oldest shoe factory in the country to the global community.