Chinese exporters have emerged as winners in an ugly spat between South Africa's retail industry, the Pretoria government and local unions over quota limits on China-made clothes and textile imports.

Chinese exporters will now be able to sell a full range of clothes and textiles to South Africa until 1 January 2007, avoiding a quota system which was due to go into effect on 28 September.

The South African government decision's to delay the imposition of quotas comes after an outcry from leading retailers who warned that limits placed on 31 types of Chinese garments would spark price rises of up to 25% on clothing and leave local shelves empty in the run-up to the peak Christmas retail period.

The government had negotiated for years for limits on Chinese imports after coming under pressure from South Africa clothing unions who have watched thousands of jobs being lost in the country's clothing manufacturing sector.

The delay in the import quotas is not likely to improve badly dented relations between the retail industry and the Pretoria government. The deputy minister had already warned retailers of "treason" if they try and get around the Chinese quotas by buying from other suppliers such as Bangladesh and Eastern Europe.

The South African Department of Trade and Industry is already uneasy after the trade deal with China started to unravel so quickly in the face of local opposition from retailers such as Edcon, Pepcor, Mr Price, Woolworths, Truworths and Foschini.

"The department wishes to underscore that its flexibility in implementing the quota restrictions is a deviation from the international norm," it said.

The Chinese embassy in Pretoria did no offer a comment on the row.

By Steven Swindells.