Exclusively for Soweto

A giant statue of an elephant in majestic mid-stride says you’ve arrived at the Maponya Mall in Soweto.

It’s an apt image. When Soweto’s first shopping mall opened in September 2007, it signalled the arrival of a township famous for less happy events into a more stable, consumer-friendly 21st-century lifestyle.

Huge money (R650-million) was poured into the project by Soweto tycoon Richard Maponya, Zenprop Property Holdings and Investec. The investment was both symbolic and novel: a black investor building one of the biggest shopping complexes on the subcontinent in Soweto, home to more than a million people—a quarter of Johannesburg’s population.

The mall opened the way for other “firsts”.
In the retail big-name rush to take up tenant space, Exclusive Books opened the first chain bookstore in a South African township.

But 18 months later, company executives are scrutinising the shop’s balance sheets. “Unfortunately, the Exclusive Books store at Maponya Mall is not doing well at the moment,” Batya Green, spokesperson of Exclusive Books, said.

The Exclusive at Maponya Mall is different from its older siblings in the suburbs. Visit, say, the Cresta branch and you’re struck by the enticing stacks of books. The Soweto branch is the antithesis: there’s none of that intense bustle that has come to define the retail chain, neither is there the couch-and-coffee combo that invites browsers to make an outing of it.

Orderly almost to fault, you will find mostly inspirational and self-help books politely arranged on the shelves. At the back of the shop is a well-stocked Van Schaik section, doing quick business in textbooks. A casual chat with a shop assistant confirms that the shop sells more textbooks than general fiction.

Inspirational books and Christian lit abound. Stephen Bayley and Roger Mavity’s Life’s a Pitch, about how to sell yourself and your brilliant ideas, nestles alongside The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale, a book on how to quit smoking, several on insomnia and a shelf full of Bibles and other religious books. If Maponya Mall is anything to go by, Sowetans favour improving non-fiction. Green confirmed that “genres that perform better in Maponya Mall include self-help, biographies, Christian and business books”.

Commenting on the rather limited range of subjects—the fiction section is small though stocked with Afro-classics—Green said the selection is based on simple economics. “We’ll stock any books customers demand and desire—within reason. The customers speak with their wallets.”

This was borne out by interviews with shoppers. “I buy most of my books here,” said Thamaga Pina, a fourth-year banking student at the Soweto campus of the University of Johannesburg (UJ). Pina had just bought a dictionary. A week ago the 23-year-old bought a business law book and in January Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like.

Shopper Silindile Mthethwa, a student at UJ, had just bought a management book. Siyabonga Mnisi said he bought his newspapers at Exclusive Books. “I don’t buy books here; I don’t have the money.” Among the fiction were respectable classics including Sol Plaatje’s Mhudi, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and several books by Bessie Head. Many of these are prescribed reading at schools, which invites the question of how many book-buyers are reading purely for pleasure.

Asked whether the Maponya Mall Exclusive might close, Green would only say: “In this current economic climate it’s a given that all retailers will seriously reconsider any non-performing stores. We’ll take decisions on a case-by-case basis.”

One hopes the need won’t arise: it would be tragic for Sowetans if the only serious bookstore in this elephantine township, about which so many books have been written, were to close.

Percy Zvomuya