Soweto emerges as shoppers' haven

The Baltimore Sun

Soweto, South Africa -- You know it's not a typical shopping center ribbon-cutting when the man wielding the scissors is Nelson Mandela.

"With this action, we declare the mall open," the 89-year-old anti-apartheid hero and ex-president said to cheers Thursday after snipping the gold ribbon at Maponya Mall.

The 180-store complex is the first megamall in Soweto, the vast township near Johannesburg that's home to well over a million black South Africans. These aren't just any stores. They include some of the same upscale retailers found at the fanciest malls as well as the township's first multiplex cinema.

Soweto may be best known around the world for the 1976 student uprising that helped galvanize anew the fight against apartheid. But it is changing along with the rest of South Africa, and has been since the advent of democracy 13 years ago.

Among the most noticeable signs lately has been the arrival of shopping choices for people who long had to go into Johannesburg for all but the most basic shopping needs. Retailing in Soweto has more than quadrupled in the past two years, with a handful of smaller malls open or under construction.

Maponya Mall, with its soaring atrium and 700,000 square feet of shopping and eating space, is the exclamation point. It is also a dream come true for 82-year-old Richard Maponya, an entrepreneur who had dreamed of building the mall since buying the land 28 years ago, at the height of apartheid.

The shopping boom has several roots. One is pent-up demand. Large white-owned businesses long avoided the area for economic reasons, crime fears or plain racism. Maponya knocked on many doors for many years, only to be told no. It is little surprise that a 2004 study found just a quarter of Soweto's estimated $600 million annual retail buying power stayed in Soweto.

Another factor has been that the buying power itself has risen as the majority black population becomes more integrated, albeit fitfully, into the economy. Poverty is still widespread, and some estimates put unemployment near 70 percent. Even so, more people have more money to burn.

There may also be a political element. Maponya's partners on the $93 million mall -- a big developer and a leading financial firm -- score points with the government of President Thabo Mbeki when they invest in underserved black areas like Soweto.

The African Diamond jewelry store has a branch at Johannesburg's exclusive Hyde Park Mall. It saw a potential gold mine at Maponya Mall, said manager Jeanette Nteo.

While the shop will cater to all incomes, she said plenty of Sowetans have money, based on the BMWs and Audis she sees: "These people are making it. It's not just poor people. It's a mix."

One unknown is whether the middle class (and up) will stay. "There are enough people there, with enough buying power, to sustain these shopping centers," said Francois Viruly, a lecturer in property economics at the University of the Witwatersrand.

That may change, he said, if people at the higher end keep moving out of Soweto and into formerly all-white suburbs, and spending their rands there. "The question is, are we overdoing it? The jury is still out."

At Thursday's grand opening, the vibe was one of optimism and even amazement at the creation of such a mall in the heart of Soweto.

"I am standing here to deliver to you the dream of 28 years," a beaming Maponya told the crowd.

"Now the onus is for you, the people of Soweto, to support [and] to protect this establishment as your establishment. I am just a facilitator. The property is yours. You will shop here; your children will shop here."

Much of Soweto's buying power will continue to depart, of course, since the big retailers are still substantially white-owned. But fully 30 percent of the tenants are black-owned. They may or may not live in Soweto, but they do further the government's goal of "black economic empowerment."

Mdududzi Mlambo, 23, a self-employed event photographer, said he can't wait to shop at the mall. He lives a five-minute walk away and is tired of having to take a taxi every time he wants to see a movie or go clothes shopping at a mall.

"There will be a place to develop film, places to eat, the cinema. No more using transport, just walk down. It's got everything."

Others say all they want from the mall is work. At the main gate on Wednesday, Collin Llane, 27, held a cardboard sign saying "ANY JOB OFFER." He was among dozens trying to get the attention of store managers streaming into the parking lot.

"I'm desperate," he said. "I've gone six months without a job. I've got two children." He used to sell shoes. He applied to three shops. "I didn't get any calls."

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