Soweto gets a taste of the good life with opening of giant mall

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The Independent Online

It is better known for its shacks and its role in the struggle against apartheid, but yesterday Soweto joined the material world when a giant, 200-store shopping arcade was opened by former South African president Nelson Mandela. The Maponya Mall, covering nearly 700,000 sq ft and costing 650m rand (£47m), has been billed as the largest in the southern hemisphere.

Representing another milestone in the economic transformation of the township on the edge of Johannesburg, it is the brainchild of one of Soweto's oldest entrepreneurs, Richard Maponya, 82 and is named in his honour. He started in business by opening a dairy in Soweto in the 1950s. Standing in front of a statue inspired by an iconic photograph of a dying Hector Pieterson, the youngest victim of the 1976 Soweto student uprising against apartheid, Mr Maponya said: "I have been one of the sons of this town for a very long time. I have seen it grow."

Mr Maponya, dubbed South Africa's "father of black retail", said his inspiration for the development was the belief that Soweto residents should not have to travel long distances just to shop.

He described how he struggled for business backing during apartheid. He said: "When I wanted to open a shopping mall in the township 20 years ago, I was reminded by the powers-that-be at the time that I was a temporary sojourner in the city of Johannesburg. I was also reminded that I belonged somewhere in a corner of South Africa but I never tired to keep on knocking on doors to get permission to build my dream. Today, I deliver to you my dream of 28 years."

Around 60 of the 200 stores are black-owned and the centre has South African anchor stores such as Woolworths, Pick '* Pay and Edgars. It also has an eight-screen cinema with 1,400 seats.

"It's really a world-class mall," Mr Maponya said. "I'm very proud that I have succeeded in bringing this to the people of Soweto. We must have definitely established over 2,000 new job opportunities."

Local economists were equally optimistic. "Historically Soweto has been the leader in our national movement toward freedom... and we expect no less from it in our struggle toward the economic growth of the majority," said Jason Ngobeni, director of economic development for Johannesburg.

Soweto – an apartheid acronym for South West Townships – is enjoying an economic boom helping dispel its rugged, violent past.

The birthplace of Mr Mandela and fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Soweto has seen massive development during the past five years with new houses, paved roads, electricity and landscaped parks. In the township, which is – officially – home to 1.5 million people, house prices have risen and smarter cars are on the streets. The boom has been fuelled by a black middle-class or, as they have been labelled, "black diamond" consumers.

The community has also defined the country's black, urban style. This year it has hosted a wine festival, South African Fashion Week and, last weekend, an international break-dancing competition.

However, not everyone in Soweto is enjoying its new found prosperity. Three weeks ago, residents in an informal settlement area called Protea South staged violent protests against poor housing in which one person died and several were injured.

Around the corner from Maponya Mall, the owner of Welcome Butchery and Supermarket, Patrick Siswana, expects his business to decline for the next six months as curious Sowetans visit the new arcade. He believes new malls are only serving to widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots. He said: "The only people that can afford it are the rich people."

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