Article 2014 The Year in Review

Soweto's largesse and myth of success after apartheid

The flagrant flaunting of wealth in South Africa's biggest township belies continuing inequality.

There is a strong tradition behind Sunday lunch in Soweto. Families gather around in celebratory mood to feast on “seven colours”, a colloquial way of describing the assortment of colourful culinary delights: beetroot, mayonnaise-dipped potatoes, spicy shredded carrots (chakalaka), some greens and a giant steak. The food is a perfect hangover cure for the uncle who overindulged the previous night and sustenance for the gogo (granny) who just endured a spirited sermon at church while robed in her traditionally heavy garb. Local shopping centres are open for business as early as 8:30 on a Sunday morning to provide the necessities that keep this Soweto tradition intact.

Soweto is South Africa’s biggest township, with a population of 2m and still increasing. It has seen a proliferation of shopping malls in recent years, including Dobsonville, Protea Gardens, Jabulani, Bara Mall and the recently built Maponya with an elephant logo that gives an idea of its enormity and grandeur in the minds of Sowetans.

Maponya Mall is Richard Maponya’s grand conception. As an enterprising property developer and businessman, he started his business during the days of apartheid. Back then it was a small-scale grocery enterprise, also named Maponya, which he ran against the backdrop of South Africa’s draconian past. On the student riots of 16 June 1976, Maponya was involved in what was termed “Black Christmas”. Amid the refusal to accept Afrikaans as a language of instruction in schools, organised consumer boycotts ran amok. Rioting students torched businesses that were thought to be consorting with the apartheid government. Christmas Day 1976 was duly blackened. In 2014, well past the days of resistance, Richard Maponya is celebrated as a resilient South African entrepreneur.

While the Sunday seven colours tradition stays strong, a new generation - known as Izikhothane - toss the custard meant for dessert around, quite literally. Izikhothani are mostly teens dressed in expensive attire and with a flash and brag style. They court the attention of adoring masses by tearing up money and branded clothing. They are notorious, in addition, for hurling South Africa’s most expensive custard around in displays of calculated opulence. Izikhothani culture originally spawned in the East of Johannesburg and subsequently gained prominence in the townships of Soweto. Ideas as to why this trend exists differ, but according to a Is’khotani (singular) belonging to a group known as the Carvela Boys (named after the Italian clothing brand), “we do this to stand out and show people that we can do whatever we like. That is what we children born post-apartheid are all about.”

The rituals of the Izikhothani are rebellion manifest as a type of performance.

Many of these teenagers are still in school and under parental supervision. The Carvela Boy says, “what we do as Izikhothani is because we choose to turn our backs on what society expects of us” and “yes, some of us have good upbringings, but what else can we do when the people in government are not setting the right examples themselves?” Recent developments have had mass media appropriating Izikhothani via parodies that can be seen in local television ad campaigns, comic strips and soap operas.

In the wake of Maponya Mall, the debate has been whether the shopping haven is representative of developmental progression in Soweto, or whether it stands as an ivory tower where Sowetans consume without critique, despite their social conditions, including poverty and unemployment. Maponya’s daughter Chichi says: “Economic activity continues even in areas where there is poverty and unemployment, because consumers are the same everywhere.”

The mushrooming of malls in Soweto has been a source of debate for some time. Developers and marketers see the malls as a way to lift the curse of underdevelopment . This fits their capitalistic agenda conveniently. To many Sowetans, whose mutterings and grievances can be heard in crowded trains and taxi ranks, the malls hamper their small businesses. Historically, Soweto has been an area of “spaza shops” – outlets usually built within one’s yard where basic amenities are sold to the community. These were dominant up until the 1990s and were informal businesses serving a relatively low income consumer market. Apart from facing competition from malls, the spaza shop culture also now clashes with an influx of Pakistani and Somali communities, who have formed their own businesses in Soweto, a phenomenon that some say played a role in the xenophobic attacks of 2008.

“For marketers, the market has always been in Soweto but there hasn’t always been a provision of products, so part of this explosion of malls is the realisation of that fact”, says Wandile Nzimande, founder of clothing brand Loxion Kulture and station manager at Soweto TV. “It’s not only guys with big cheques who have noticed this; the proliferation of cheap products from East Asia has also taken over a lot of our urban areas such as Soweto because the market is here.”

Mainstream media has by and large promoted the idea of transformation through advertising. The idea of the rainbow nation and reconciliation is evident in the odd advert where a white lady waxes lyrical in Zulu or even the heavy endorsement of multiracial music groups such as Freshlyground by media gatekeepers.

After 1994, the case that South Africa had moved from its past was presented through the holy grail of non-racial economic freedom.

This occurred through former figures from the struggle moving into mainstream business and the advent of BEE (Black Economic Empowerment), a conceptual idyll that would see previously disadvantaged individuals participating fully in the economy. However, BEE has not been beneficial to many people beyond those with elite connections in the political sphere, according to studies.

Brand obsession has by no means stayed away from Soweto’s heritage sites. Predating the growth of malls is the Vilakazi Street phenomenon, which historically housed Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela during the years of resistance. Vilakazi is today a tourist destination where people from all over globe descend in droves to witness the only street in the world to harbour two Nobel Prize laureates. It is flanked by restaurants whose price lists can only be looked at by those with euros and dollars, as well as the negligible crop of South Africa’s middle class; not all Sowetans have the luxury to dine there.

A stone’s throw away from Vilakazi is the Hector Pieterson Museum, which commemorates the fall of one of the youngest students to be shot dead during the 1976 uprising. The curator of this tourist attraction, Khwezi Gule, says: “There is a growing interest and scholarship in what is called Dark Tourism, which is an area of study by those who are interested in heritage and this typically involves sites of trauma and tragedy. “Some of the literature that has been generated around this is around Holocaust sites and slave castles, especially in Ghana and Senegal. There is a lot of ambivalence around such sites because one needs to maintain the dignity and solemnity of the space, but increasingly sites of memory are dependent on revenues generated by visitors.”

Hector Pieterson Museum’s exterior sports a sizeable number of side street sellers, all of whom make handmade products. According to one, who sculpts images of heroes of the struggle out of stone, “a lot of my fellow artists also want to be here but can’t because this space is only available to a few”. Gule admits: “Of course there is potential for more people to participate, but I think Sowetans have great initiative and are generally people who are constantly looking for opportunities.”

Soweto restaurateur and a child of the ’76 riots, Wandile Ndala, perceives the exclusion of multitudes of Sowetans from fully participating in emergent projects as “a ticking time bomb that will see all of us pay. If we as business people continue to sideline the majority for the sake of fattening our own pockets, we will have another uprising and, even worse, an escalation of crime in the township.”

As a celebrated figure himself in Soweto, Ndala’s passion for the food service industry started pre-democracy. He views the on-the-surface flashing by the moneyed few as “a blatant lie that the unskilled youth are buying into without asking serious questions and looking at their immediate environment which tells the story of the corrupt rich getting richer while the rest of Sowetans have nothing”.

Ultimately, the blind rush to consume despite challenging socioeconomic circumstances is symptomatic of a destabilised discourse of what it really means to be economically free post-apartheid. As the abrasive young long for leadership while tearing up their branded gear, malls sprawl on Sundays and tourism companies cash in on the remnants of struggle, a deeper desperation for the pending fruits of equality grows within ordinary Sowetans.

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