Sowetans reap fruits of freedom -- in a mall


SOWETO, South Africa -- The Dobsonville Shopping Center rises in glorious incongruity from among the rows of matchbox shanties that crawl up and down the rolling hills of Soweto, once one of the the bloodiest battlegrounds in the struggle against apartheid.

Now, the presence of the brand-new 68-store mall in this huge black township is evidence that more than the government is changing in the new South Africa.

The fact that Soweto's estimated 4 million people have never had a shopping mall is just one of apartheid's many legacies. Soweto and similar townships across the country were designed as the places where blacks would live isolated from the white cities where they worked.

Laws forbidding and restricting black business ownership also guaranteed that they would shop in those white cities, their money enriching white businesses there.

One of the most striking aspects of a drive through Soweto is

how few shops there are to serve so many people. But now it has its own mall.

"I think it's very nice," said 63-year-old Sarah Khosa, who has lived in Soweto since 1959.

She was looking over the meat selection in the Shoprite supermarket. To see anything like this before the mall opened three weeks ago, she would have had to take one of the minibus taxis that are the mainstay of black transportation, spending about $1.50 for the round trip.

"With that taxi money I save, I can buy something," she said. Like most shoppers at the mall, Mrs. Khosa walked there. The rather small parking lot outside was nearly empty. Relatively few Sowetans own cars.

Not only do mall shoppers save on transport, but they can also buy things more cheaply than in the small local stores -- known as spaza shops -- that are run out of backyards and garages throughout Soweto. A loaf of bread that costs 60 cents at one of those stores is about 40 cents at the Shoprite.

Not everyone's happy

Of course, not everyone is happy about that. A few blocks from the mall, Richard Mafisa, 62, sat rather forlornly behind the bars that protect his tiny kiosk-like spaza shop.

His small selection of meat, vegetables, canned goods, candies and such could not compete with the Shoprite, in quantity or price.

"Everyday, I see people walking past with their Shoprite bags. Some of them were my customers," he said, estimating that business was down 50 percent since the mall opened.

"I'm feeling the pinch," he said. "I know I can't compete with a chain store."

Indeed, some claim that the arrival of modern malldom in Soweto is really a continuation of white-owned businesses taking money from the pockets of black consumers and leaving nothing behind.

"While we welcome development and the creation of jobs, we feel developments like that mall are of benefit to white business, not black business," said Max Legodi of the Greater Soweto Chamber of Commerce.

"Black business, by the deliberate design of apartheid laws, never had access to the benefits of the economy of this country," he said, explaining that the small black businesses able to function in the apartheid era had little access to capital, management training, bulk buying and other advantages available to large white-run companies.

Help black businesses

"White businesses are morally bound to upgrade the situation of black business, not just come into our communities, make some profit and move out. Instead, they need to do things that will upgrade the level of competence of the black business community."

Though Mr. Legodi disputes it, that's exactly what this mall is doing, according to Sipho Mashimimi, a Soweto resident who developed the Dobsonville Shopping Center for Sanlam Properties, one of South Africa's largest commercial developers.

From his windowed office that overlooks one of the mall's bright interior courtyards, he pointed out that about 20 percent of the mall's businesses are locally owned, either outright or franchise arrangements.

Sanlam Properties is also offering 49 percent of the mall's ownership in the form of stock shares sold for around $30 each to Soweto residents.

But Mr. Mashimimi makes clear that the mall is not a social program, but a business venture.

"We moved in here because the black market is the growing market in South Africa," he said. "The white market is shrinking."

He claimed that despite the past injustices, the country is now ripe for black entrepreneurship, that white businesses across the country are looking for black partners. "People have to take the opportunity, not wait until it is offered to them," he said.

Good for teen-agers

All this seemed far from the minds of a group of high school girls performing an international ritual of this age-group -- hanging out in the mall.

"It's beautiful here. I like it very much," said 15-year-old Jacobeth Matsusi. "There's so much entertainment."

She and her school-uniformed friends were gathered outside the mall's triple movie complex, a major joint venture between a black group and South Africa's largest cinema chain. Upstairs was the inevitable video game arcade.

"We're no longer sitting on the street bench," said 13-year-old Lerato Molatsi.

Indeed, the longest-lasting effect of the Dobsonville Shopping Center may be on the minds of Soweto's young people. For generations, this type of commerce was something that happened elsewhere, in Johannesburg, in other white areas.

That it can now happen in Soweto makes South Africa's high-powered economy, previously the the sole province of whites, psychologically accessible to blacks in a way that it never was before.

A couple of blocks away, Mr. Mafisa was pointing out the prices he has reduced at his spaza shop to try to compete with the mall. He was talking about expanding, building a bigger place in the vacant land around him if he can get a bank to lend him some money.

Back in the Shoprite, Mrs. Khosa said she knew who deserved credit for these brightly lighted, fully stocked aisles of food.

"I think President Mandela is doing a very good job," she said. "If he didn't fight and suffer for us, do you think they would have opened this shop? I don't think so."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad