Don’t miss Orioles players, John Means & Paul Fry, as they guest host at our Brews and O’s event!

Real Big Mac arrives in South Africa Plagiarizing competitor loses fight to block opening of McDonald's


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Since the end of the apartheid era, visits by Queen Elizabeth, Pope John Paul II and Mick Jagger have signaled South Africa's return to the international arena.

Now another name can be added to that list: Ronald McDonald.

The hamburger clown made his debut last week at the opening of South Africa's first McDonald's restaurant, hours after the company won a court order barring a local competitor from using its trademarked golden arches, names and logo.

The local company had opened outlets in Johannesburg and Durban under the name "MacDonald's" -- with the extra a. In addition to the subtly different name, it offered a burger called a Big Mac as well as something called a Little Mac.

But a South African court ruled Friday that the local company could not use the symbols of McDonald's at least until another hearing Dec. 3.

The United States had already placed South Africa on a "watch list" of countries for failing to protect intellectual property, since a lower court had ruled that the locals could "borrow" the hamburger trademarks. And in Johannesburg there were already two Toys 'R' Us stores (complete with backward R's) that have nothing to do with the U.S. chain, plus disputes about the trademarks of Burger King.

Many South Africans see the U.S. complaints not as a legitimate effort to protect so-called intellectual property, but as a big nation trying to bully a small one.

Franklin Sonn, South Africa's ambassador to the United States, characterized the American attitude as "akin to a kind of imperialism and aggression, albeit economic, that was thought to have dissipated with the end of the Cold War."

"There has been no theft or piracy of intellectual property," the newspaper Business Day editorialized. "There is nothing arcane about flipping hamburgers."

"It is doubtful that a firm such as McDonald's could introduce new technologies or skills were it to trade here."

Indeed, one of the owners of the South African MacDonald's -- George Sombonos -- is being treated as something of a local hero, a David who stood up to the American Goliath. Mr. Sombonos' company runs a chain of fried chicken outlets called Chicken Licken, often praised for their presence in black townships and the employment opportunities they have given blacks and women.

Mr. Sombonos initially won in court on the basis of a use-it-or-lose-it clause that is common in trademark legislation. McDonald's had registered its trademarks during the apartheid years. But since it did not do business here, Mr. Sombonos challenged McDonald's claim to the trademarks.

McDonald's lawyers argued that there were special circumstances that kept the company out -- specifically apartheid and U.S. legislation that enforced sanctions against South Africa.

"This goes way beyond McDonald's and Big Mac," said Michael Judin, a lawyer specializing in international trade and executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce here. "The message this sends out to international investors is very serious."

At a news conference to announce the grand opening plans, McDonald's officials did not want to talk about the trademark dispute, saying that the appeal should take its course. And whatever the outcome, South Africans have already begun to learn the true meaning of fast food.

There are plenty of burger outlets here, but it can take anywhere from five to 15 minutes for an order to be filled, usually by a rather indifferent counter attendant.

Now, South Africans can be confronted by a phalanx of smiling McDonald's types, all seemingly eager to please and hand over an order in an instant. The first of the restaurants, in a suburban Johannesburg shopping center, is run by Reggi Skhosana, a native of the black township of Kagiso who has invested his savings from a 15-year career in banking.

Mr. Skhosana joined over 40 of his fellow employees for six months of training at McDonald's in New Zealand and Egypt before finishing up with two weeks at the company's Hamburger College in Illinois.

Indeed, the size and scope of the new 250-seat McDonald's, complete with a two-story playland, seemed to overwhelm the rather tiny ersatz MacDonald's which is located on a downtown corner.

"We've got 16,000 restaurants now in 87 countries serving 30 million customers a day," said Carter Drew, an American who is in charge of McDonald's operations in South Africa. "All you have to do is look at the scoreboard to see who is the winner."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad