Wall St. and Business Wednesdays: Shopping Heaven Comes To Anti-Apartheid Bastion

Soweto, the vast township that was synonymous with neglect and revolt during apartheid, will become home to the largest shopping mall in the southern hemisphere this week when one of South Africa's original black entrepreneurs fulfills a three-decade long dream.

The ribbon-cutting ceremony at Maponya Mall on Thursday will finally enable residents to shop at highstreet stores such as Toys 'R' Us and Woolworths that had previously been confined to the malls of nearby Johannesburg.

The mall is the brainchild of

Richard Maponya, who made his first fortune by running a clothing business at a time when Soweto was little more than a place to sleep for the low-paid black workers who provided the labour force for the whites-only apartheid regime's economy in the commercial capital Johannesburg.

"It has been a long journey. I never stopped that dream because I knew that one day, one day, the people of Soweto will own what is theirs," the 82-year-old Maponya told AFP in an interview.

"I was convinced the people really needed a mall ... I never stopped."

Around 200 stores will be crammed into the 65,000-square-metre mall that has been erected at a cost of around 650 million rand (92 million dollars, 65 million euros).

The investment represents a huge vote of confidence in an area that, while still suffering from high rates of crime, is also experiencing a property boom thanks to the emergence of a black middle class.

Soweto is also seen as the heartbeat of a black South Africa which was confined to the margins during the apartheid era which finally ended in 1994.

"Soweto has set trends in music, clothes, theatre with many artists staying here," said Phillip Nkomo, owner of the Reliable Music Warehouse, which is one of the stores based in the mall.

According to Nkomo, the residents of Soweto now have considerable spending power but that money has to date been spent in the stores of downtown Johannesburg which is a 30-minute journey from the township.

"They have to travel long distances to buy their own products at the malls. Even tourists who come here see and hear some of the artists perform have to go to town to buy their product," he said.

Long-time Soweto resident Tommy-Leigh Isaak said he was delighted that he would be able to buy brand names on his doorstep rather than facing the choice between substandard goods or a trip into town.

"Finally this will save us from long travelling to town and the suburbs to do the shopping," he said.

"Now I can just walk and get everything I want under one roof. And when I am tired, I can enjoy a movie before going back home. It will save lots of our travelling money."

The complex includes an eight-screen cinema, takeaway restaurants such as McDonalds and even a self-styled "coordinated lifestyle store."

It's all a long way from the 1960s and 70s when Soweto was the hotbed of opposition to the apartheid regime, gaining international recognition as the scene of the 1976 Soweto Uprising.

Its history however will be commemorated in the mall with a statue greeting visitors of Hector Pietersen, a 12-year-old boy who was shot dead by the apartheid security forces during the 1976 student riots.

Maponya, dubbed the "father of black retail," said he kept his faith of a brighter future even at the height of apartheid.

"Soweto is my home, the people have supported me all their lives ... I've always wanted to give back and my goal is to create job opportunities at a bigger scale than what I was doing before," he added.

This article first appeared at AFP

Wednesday, September 26, 2007