Novelty of city shopping wearing thin as malls mushroom in the townships

Jabulani Mall in Soweto. Pic. Mohau Mofokeng. 28/11/06. © Sowetan.
Jabulani Mall in Soweto. Pic. Mohau Mofokeng. 28/11/06. © Sowetan.

Amanda Ngudle

Amanda Ngudle

Picture this Saturday morning township scene: A 10-year-old boy is vigorously scrubbing grime off his tiny body because town beckons for the first time this year.

His town shopping hopes hover between a new summer outfit and a leather soccer ball. If he is lucky, his annual visit to town will coincide with the visiting circus and he might get a glimpse of the elephants. He knows darkies are not allowed in such circles. Still, if he were to put this anticipated experience in an essay, A Journey To Town, the picture would almost be put into motion.

Fast forward to November 2006. A boy of the same age is not in the least bit fascinated by a Saturday stroll through the mall with his mom. He would consider exchanging his PlayStation for mall-mischief, like testing 20 perfumes or asking the price of silly items with his peers.

Malls have mushroomed all over the townships, but Soweto takes the medal as the forerunner in the race. What marked the highlight of a child's week is now such a deserved necessity that most kids walk to malls barefoot and sometimes scruffy, just like white kids have been doing for years.

Research conducted shortly before the mall boom in the townships showed that much of Soweto residents' disposable income was spent outside the area. It said they spent R3,4 billion in towns.

Retailers and developers are now ploughing investments into the bustling township shopping malls, which cater for Sowetans' every need, and so the novelty of shopping in town has worn off.

The manager of a shop at the Protea Gardens Mall, Khulekile Ngwane, said: "Instead of commuting long distances to towns, some residents can walk to their mall and run into familiar faces, as opposed to the old scenario, where faces were hostile and shopping was painful."

The pain of shopping in town might mean nothing to most kids these days, but to many adults it brings back memories of oppressive laws, of an era when consumer rights applied only to whites.

These prohibitive laws didn't just rob township residents of their dignity, they went as far as prohibiting development of townships for socio-economic reasons.

The new political dispensation changed that gloomy picture and, so far, Soweto in particular has seen the erection of malls like Protea Gardens, Jabulani and Bara, and developments are under way to unleash two more malls, to be known as Maponya Mall and Orlando Mall.

Inevitably, this consumer emancipation has brought with it a spate of criminal activities. Though the Consumer Goods Council of South Africa reports an 8,6percent drop in reports of criminal activity from its retail members, about 15 shoppers are reported to have had their cars stolen from the Jabulani Mall within a week of it opening. The Jabulani police station couldn't be reached for confirmation.

Khehla Nhleko, of ADT security systems, said: "This is why you find that security is now much tighter in these malls."

It is the same security that can quickly remind a shopper that she is not in Killarney Mall but in a ghetto.

But that 10-year-old boy in the first scene will tell you that nothing feels better than walking in a town brought closer to his home because, among the many benefits of this township revival, is that his house is worth 10 times what it was in 1980.