Arts and Culture

A giant in the making

Sello S Alcock

Three years ago Gauteng administrators asked a group of really smart people to look into the economic potential of Soweto.

Three years ago Gauteng administrators asked a group of really smart people to look into the economic potential of that sprawling township on the outskirts of Johannesburg.

The concerned township, legend has it, got its name during the height of apartheid after an Afrikaans housewife who won a naming competition and in the process bagged R20 for coming up with “South Western Township”.

The meaningless name would later be shortened to “Soweto” and by 2005 a group of smart capitalists were circling the poverty stricken but vibrant township. This took place after the dawn of a post-1994 era and the looming 2010 soccer spectacle.

Their goal: to see if Soweto was ready finally, after years of instutionalised violence and stifled progress, to live up to its true potential.

It turns out the number crunchers stumbled on the fact that the township, with a roaring trade among its one-million odd population, possessed R8,9-billion spending power.

This number, the smart number crunchers discovered, came from a number of unspecified households and included about R4,2-billion spent exclusively on retail goods.

“Sure we can build shopping malls here,” they concluded.

Not before cautioning that there was “probably not space for a new regional shopping centre [larger than 35 000m2]”.

At the same time a Soweto icon, probably somewhere in the comfort of the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, was putting the final touches on a plan to build a 60 000m2 “mega” shopping mall.

The number crunchers were not convinced. Though the proposed project was “serious”, they believed, “it is likely that 60 000m2 is too big — taking the demand figures in this report into consideration”.

The visionary, and Soweto icon, Richard Maponya, now in his 80s, probably just shrugged the smart Alec predictions off.

He pushed on and built the biggest shopping mall in Soweto and by the time it opened its doors late last year it was clear for all to see that a giant was rising in the form of Soweto.

Maponya Mall, according to its website, now attracts about 1,5-million people a month and 180 tenants that vary from your high-end shop that exclusively sells silk shirts to a customised Primi franchise, aptly named Bazala, which colloquially means friends.

The mall is on Old Potch Road and is a few kilometres from what will be Soweto’s first Gary Player designed 18-hole golf estate.

Take a left a few robots after the mall, in the direction of another recent mall, Protea, and you are greeted by the hustle and bustle of what used to be known as the Kliptown Market.

The place has been transformed into the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication and now boasts a four- star hotel. For R1 600 a night you can bask in luxury after a night out in Soweto, visiting places such as Wandies, Robie’s Place and the famous Vilakazi Road in Soweto’s own Beverly Hills.

A drive from Maponya Mall to the left towards Orlando East will take you right past the site of the R1-billion Ekhaya project. On the site a complex along the lines of the Melrose Arch’s live, work and play concept will be built.

The complex, which will be built on the site of the former Orlando Power Station, will include shops and an extreme-sports venue that is already operational.

To kill time you can take part in a number of exhilarating activities from the top of the tower, such as abseiling, swinging and bungee jumping.

The Soweto Campus of the University of Johannesburg, which is directly opposite the Soweto towers, served as the venue for the fourth Annual Wine Festival two weeks ago and attracted about 5 000 wine lovers.

“We just couldn’t fit any more people in the main hall. It is fantastic to see growing interest in wine from this untapped market,” said wine festival co-founder Marilyn Copper.

She added that the organisers will be looking to expand the space for next year’s spectacle.

The festival ran wine classes for would-be connoisseurs, which were conducted by Mary Kane and wine master Chris de Klerk.

The co-founder and owner of the Soweto-based Morara Wine Emporium hailed the event a great success, but expressed concerns of a different kind. “I did notice that there are still some people who don’t like to spit when tasting wine.”

Next Wednesday the same venue will host the Annual Soweto Festival, the successor to the Homemakers Show, which used to take place near Mshenguville.

The festival will run from Heritage Day until September 28 and will feature an exhibition village and live-music concerts with acts such as Malaika, DJ Pepsi of “Revenge” fame, Lira, Tuks and many others.

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