Sowetans have seen the development of a number of shopping malls
in the past few years, with the tenant mix coming to resemble that
found in upmarket suburbs.
As a young girl growing up in Soweto I knew shopping to be a
planned outing, a treat and an occasion. We planned our route, we
dressed up and we knew where we would have lunch or dinner. It was
usually on Saturdays, in the Johannesburg CBD. Then Southgate and
Highgate Malls opened up, which were closer to Soweto, and our
shopping distance halved.
We were excited when news of a mall that would be a "Sandton
City in Soweto" broke, Maponya Mall. We were excited because
it would be convenient, and when it first opened its doors it
boasted shops like Spitz, Mugg &Bean Woolworths (with the
in-store, sit-in restaurant), Exclusive books, PUMA and Ocean
basket, to name but a few.
Today things seem to be changing; each time I visit the mall yet
another shop has moved out. I have my suspicions as to why the mall
is losing its shine:
Soweto is big and Maponya Mall is not convenient for most
Sowetans. Soweto has more than 30 townships in it, and Maponya is
not central enough for most of these. The taxi routes are a major
obstacle to effective commuting in Soweto. Maponya's lack of
proper planning and consultation with the taxi associations was a
costly mistake. Dobsonville residents need to take up to 3 taxis to
Maponya, 2 to Southgate & Sandton, and 1 to Westgate. Who would
want to go to Maponya given these 3 strong competitors? They have
now launched the Reavaya rapid bus system, but Reavaya is also not
accessible to most people. Maponya Mall may be closer to home but
it's not convenient for most people, and if it is inconvenient it
certainly needs to offer something special beyond novelty value for
people to keep coming back.
Soweto is a diverse place - we have a fair number of middle and
high class people, but we also have a high rate of unemployment and
many poor people. Many of the poor frequent the mall, going there
for aspirational reasons - though their aspirations don't translate
into sales. There are people walking around the mall in their
pyjamas, with dirty towels wrapped around their waists. Why would
middle class shoppers, who consider their shopping to be a treat,
want to be in the same space? The people who have real buying power
have simply gone back to whichever mall they used to go to before
Maponya opened up. Maponya Mall is targeting almost all Sowetans
and in targeting everyone they alienate their core market.
The mall is not in a business district so having a shop like
Mugg &Bean, for example, which is used primarily for business
meetings, is a mistake. Who in the township - especially during the
week - walks across to Mugg& Bean to have a muffin when most
self-employed ladies in the township bake and sell cakes far
cheaper than Mugg &Bean's?
When we travelled to Jozi CBD for weekend shopping trips we had
a reason to have lunch at a restaurant - the distance justified
spending on a luxury like that. But when I'm closer to home in
Maponya Mall, I would consider it a waste. I would rather just buy
a Cornish pie or a Chicken Licken cone ice cream.
I have taken an interest in Maponya Mall and go there to observe
as well as to shop. I can boldly say that most of the shops do not
stock merchandise that one would find in shops in the northern
suburbs. I feel that I am getting township standard treatment and
none of the benefits and range that shoppers in suburban malls get.
Truworths and Woolworths, for example, are shadows of the shops you
find in Southgate. The fashion is not the latest, the range is
limited and their management will tell you that the shops are
expected to earn the inclusion of certain merchandise. Why would
shoppers choose to be surrounded by a sub-standard experience?
Don't underestimate the buying power that people from the
township have. They buy expensive brands even though many of
them live from hand to mouth. For some of these guys it's about
what looks good on them rather than what empowers them. Spitz will
never have to move out of Maponya Mall because it helps give people
a certain image, but Exclusive books could not last because too few
of us were buying books. We do not have a culture of reading, so
why would I spend R200 on a book that wouldn't do anything for my
image? Although that's almost the amount most residents receive as
a stipend from government, some will still find R3000 for a pair of
shoes from Spitz to make them look and feel good.
Survival for food is a daily struggle for most people in the
township. We are looking for an image that will hide the suffering.
No one wants to be seen as poor and so we camouflage ourselves
under the Gucci and the Carvela in our struggle to fit in, hoping
that this will be a way to escape the frustration of failure.
There is pressure to lead a fake life while you try to make it.
If you don't fake it, you will not fit in and everyone will see
that you haven't made it. We love decanting into packages that are
"acceptable". I once moderated an interview about margarine and the
lady told me she only buys "RAMA" because it is the best brand and
makes dry bread taste better. When I asked to see her "RAMA" I
noticed it looked lighter in colour than "RAMA" and when I
interrogated her she confessed it was actually "ROMI" that she
bought as she "couldn't afford RAMA this month". She did not "want
her neighbours to know she eats cheap stuff as they will not
respect her, they will feel sorry for her".
How can Maponya Mall be the "Sandton City in Soweto" when Soweto
is not Sandton? It will not survive unless it is tailor
made for the needs of Sowetans. Big retail brands will
continue to struggle in Soweto unless they find a way to improve
their shopping experience and to make their shoppers feel
respected. Their product ranges need to be up to date and match the
quality found in upmarket suburbs, while reflecting the unique
needs of Sowetans. If they do not, their intended market will shop
in the suburbs, leaving Maponya as an emergency shopping
destination only. A retailer exists to make profits and is Maponya
a ground for such?