LIMPOPO PROVINCE, South Africa — Movie theaters, McDonald’s, furniture shops, building warehouses, gaming arcades, IT shops, top jewelers and grocery stores are some of the establishments you’ll find in a mall in rural Limpopo. This is luxury shopping in a South African context. A luxury once unheard of, back in the apartheid era.
South Africa has a huge mining industry, and the country’s economic foundation has been built on it. From the beginning of South Africa’s economic growth, mining was a mainstay of the country, bringing in huge amounts of income and creating and attracting big-business ventures. All this led to the establishment and modernization of urban South Africa. However, very little, if anything, was done to develop the country’s rural areas.
Consequently, from the earliest industrial days and throughout the apartheid era, the country followed a policy of modernizing only urban areas and turning a blind eye to the rural ones. But today, in the new South Africa, development of rural areas is a prime objective, with even a Ministry of Rural Development and Land Reform designated to be at the forefront of rural progress. As part of this improvement effort, malls are now seen in rural South Africa,with several more under construction. The Limpopo province is part of this new development, a rural infrastructure buzz.
It is now common to see large numbers of youths packing malls in rural areas of Limpopo, enjoying luxury shopping like those in any urban area in South Africa. The coming of luxury shopping to rural Limpopo has provided various benefits to its young rural consumers and their families.
For instance, while shopping at Paledi Mall, young Alleta Bopape from the Ga-Thoka village now has to walk only 12 minutes to get to the nearest grocery store. “We do not have to go to town, and so we save transport money and time since we now do not travel long distances,” Bopape says. “We earn low wages, and so every little bit counts. We then use that money to buy a little bit extra food and have more to eat for the month.”
In 2011, over 308 billion rand (about $284 million U.S., at the time) was spent yearly on shopping by people living in rural areas and townships in South Africa. This represented 41 percent of the country’s total consumer spending. The country is the biggest retail market in sub-Saharan Africa and the 20th largest in the world.Furthermore, the country’s consumer retail growth is seen more in the rural areas than in the metropolitan regions. Property developers and retailers have set their sights on this huge and growing rural market, enticing consumers with shopping malls.
The shopping boom is not viewed as beneficial by everyone, however. A woman in her late 20s, who chose to remain anonymous, said, “I do not really see the use of malls in our impoverished village. The only things we buy are groceries and not really any luxury items, and if we do, all we get is into more debt. Is it worth it to splash large amounts [of money] on these buildings when we have dusty roads and mud houses in some of our villages?”
Class inequality is still present in South Africa, where the gap between rich and poor is so high. Few people, especially in the rural areas, have enough money to buy more than the basics, like the high-end goods sold at these malls.
Regardless of the negatives, the malls in rural parts of Limpopo still have some positive aspects. Local builder Kabelo Seolwana says that business has gone up due to the proximity of a new mall to his offices. “Before the mall, the smaller warehouses I bought from used to run out of stock. Now I am assured that I can get building material from the huge building warehouse at the mall. It is also near, so if I need anything quick I get it, so I do not make my clients wait for long. I also get referred by the warehouse to those who go to shop there. Business has definitely picked up due to the mall.”
Yet it is not all smiles among young people who reside in villages that have had malls constructed near or in them. A 29-year-old male who owns a spaza shop—and prefers to be referred to as “brah Charle” because of his informal and unregistered groceries store—said the mall had taken away his livelihood. “Because of the mall, no one comes to buy from my shop anymore! I can barely make enough to pay rent, and I am failing to pay school fees for my children. It is not just me; other shop owners have lost sales too. It’s funny, we cannot get formal employment, and when we become businesspeople it is taken away from us!” he laments.
The malls’ tendency to take away commerce from small businesses in rural areas has been aired as one of their drawbacks, especially considering the high rates of unemployment among youth, who are encouraged to be entrepreneurial.
In their defense, property developers and retailers insist that the malls generate new and sustainable employment and that it is mostly villagers nearby who get employed. For instance, 900 million rand (about $85 million U.S.) is being invested in a new development called the Thavhani Mall, which is expected to create between 1,500 and 2,000 permanent jobs in the Vhembe district of Limpopo. The retailers and property developers insist that although some people may lose their livelihoods, many more will benefit from widespread, stable and secure jobs and the creation of service industries around the malls. Whether this makes economic and humane sense is up for debate when someone loses a business.
Although they do serve many of the negative ends of capitalism, when one sees the elderly people of rural Limpopo enjoying a more convenient shopping experience, having brand choices, saving more and traveling less distance to shop, the malls become hard to fault. And when the young people of these villages are employed in banks, butcheries, clothes stores, supermarkets, telecommunications shops and the many other retail outlets at these malls, the plus side is evident. Moreover, seeing village young people indulging in luxury shopping in their modest surroundings proves that significant strides have been made in providing economic progress for everyone in South Africa.
Part of what Nelson Mandela and his colleagues fought for was a chance for disadvantaged black people, such as rural youth, to enjoy the same luxuries as their white countrymen. Having malls in the remote rural areas of provinces such as Limpopo is one realization of what democratic South Africa stands for: that indulging in comforts should be up to the individual and not a matter of policy. The benefits of malls, in some instances, outweigh their apparent drawbacks in the rural areas. Nonetheless, more infrastructure development is still required in rural South Africa to achieve systemic economic and social development.