/ 10 August 2021

Rebuttal: Township malls should be rebuilt

Safrica Politic Unrest Economy
Volunteers and local workers take part in the clean up operation at the looted Bara Mall in Soweto, on July 15, 2020. - Many South Africans, taking matters into their own hands in a country where few rely on a chronically failing state, have started to clean up and repair. And the South African presidency even tweeted its thanks to "those who clean up". (Photo by LUCA SOLA / AFP)

The article “Why township malls should not be rebuilt” in the Mail & Guardian newspaper ruffled a few of my feathers, as the author, Tshepo Mokholo, predicted. Let me declare upfront that I was born, educated and continue to live in a township, Soweto to be specific, by choice. So Mokholo’s overall contention that township malls should not be rebuilt sends a chill down my spine because the place one calls home and its immediate surroundings will be negatively affected. My house is within a two-kilometre radius of Maponya and Jabulani malls, whose permanent demise will unleash a myriad of adverse social and economic ills.

In the immediate aftermath of the devastating looting, which shocked all of us, I got a call from my cousin, who works and resides in Cape Town. Although he was sympathetic to our plight, he shared a social media article hostile to the existence of township malls in their current form. My cousin agreed with the argument of the article that township malls are instruments of poverty and exploitation. I disagreed, based on my experience of growing up and living in a township.

The difference between the social media and Mokholo’s articles are their proposals of what needs to be done. The former advocates rebuilding with conditions in terms of business tenancy, where 30% space is reserved for local businesses and 70% for goods sourced locally from township supplies. Mokholo recommends permanent closure of malls without providing a solution on what to do with the scarred ruins left behind. Obviously, I agree with the former’s proposal and here are my reasons.     

Although I agree with Makhobo’s assertion that malls in general, not only township malls, can be hostile spaces, I disagree with his statement that the ‘… malls can be destructive to local economies and communities’. Having lived in a township long enough, I have seen how these malls have transformed local economies and communities. They have boosted the informal economy. Malls attract a thriving community of local informal traders who sell all manner of products at a reasonable price because they do not have large overheads. Any township mall has a snake of local informal traders along its perimeter fence. These traders are struggling since the looting and closure of malls because the local human traffic, which patronised their stalls daily, has ceased. This is a crucial township economic sector that sustains a number of livelihoods.  

Another sector negatively affected is the local transport sector. The existence of township malls act as transport nodes for the taxi industry. New thriving taxi routes were designed using the malls as departure or transition points. With the closure of some of the township malls, those routes and transport nodes have either closed or are not as busy as they used to be. Hence, the taxi association in Katlehong and Vosloorus in Ekurhuleni had the foresight to protect its malls from the looters. Essentially, it was protecting the livelihoods of its taxi drivers and owners. The community of Pimville, Soweto, had the same foresight when it decided to protect Maponya Mall from attack.

In my humble view, the greatest threat to the township economy and community stability is Eskom’s erratic supply of electricity to the townships. Constant power cuts caused by five-hour unscheduled power reduction or loadshedding and regular sub-station breakdowns harm local corner trading stores and spaza shops. My local corner store had to close for two years because one of the electricity street power boxes broke down. Eskom refused to fix it, alleging illegal connections. When the power was restored, the store was a shadow of its former self, struggling to supply basic items such as milk and coke.

These power cuts are also a threat to social stability and people’s well-being. A corner house in my street has been converted into a home for older people and residents rely on electricity to take their medication and keep warm. The home has had to invest in a generator. No week passes without a  section of Soweto blocking the roads and burning tyres to protest against the power cuts. More often than not, these protests turn violent and infrastructure and personal properties are destroyed. 

I am not sure how “the existence of malls undermine real-estate owners”, as Mokholo asserts. This is a throwaway statement without elaboration. This is contrary to reality, at least in the case of Soweto. Besides Maponya, two of the biggest malls, Jabulani and Protea Glen, were built and are owned by a black property owner, Mike Nkuna. In addition, for the past few years there has been a flurry of real estate development of houses and flats around malls, especially Jabulani and Protea Glen, which make these Soweto areas attractive as living and shopping spaces.

The only point I agree with Mokholo is his contention that “the state lack[s] … understanding and vision for the township economy”. The government has good and noble plans for township entrepreneurs and economic upliftment but, as usual, they are not implemented. I would also say the lack of political will renders such plans meaningless paper exercises. The failure is also exacerbated by lack of synergy between the three spheres of government — national, provincial and local.