CON­SUMERISM GONE MAD

CityPress - - Voices - GAR­RETH VAN NIEK­ERK gar­reth.van­niek­erk@city­press.co.za

While dream­ing of my first South African Star­bucks cof­fee this week, I came across the words of Joseph Campbell in a tweet shared by philoso­pher Alain de Bot­ton. Campbell said: “If we want to know what a so­ci­ety be­lieves in, you must look at what its largest build­ings are de­voted to.” The tweet came dur­ing the week that the At­ter­bury Group launched the Mall of Africa, the largest built in a sin­gle phase in south­ern Africa, si­t­u­ated within their al­ready enor­mous Wa­ter­fall City gated res­i­den­tial de­vel­op­ment. The idea of a mall within a gated com­mu­nity is typ­i­cally the de­scrip­tion of hell for any­one in­ter­ested in city build­ing, but this de­vel­oper-imag­ined city is now upon us, and so we must live with it.

If you lis­tened closely when the rib­bons of the mall were cut this week, you could hear “The Mall Maker” and orig­i­nal sculp­tor of con­sumerism, ar­chi­tect Vic­tor Gruen, wail­ing from the grave at the hideous irony of the com­muters stuck in the hours of traf­fic out­side the mall on its open­ing day. Gruen de­signed the first cli­mate-con­trolled in­door shopping cen­tres to rem­edy, even cure, Amer­ica of the ills of a car-based city, so just imag­ine his pen crash­ing to the ground when read­ing on the mall’s web­site, “The Mall of Africa has 6 500 park­ing bays, the ma­jor­ity of which are un­der­ground. That’s 11 817 000 kilo­grams of cars!”

In­side the mall, one is promised an “African shopping ex­pe­ri­ence”, a ver­i­ta­ble spend­ing sa­fari through spa­ces such as the For­est Walk, in­spired by the forests of the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo, or the Court of the Great Lakes, in­tended to echo Lake Tan­ganyika, and the Desert Court – a des­o­late val­ley of glass and mar­ble in­spired by the sands of the Sa­hara Desert of­fer­ing shoppers “an op­por­tu­nity to slow down and take a mo­ment for your­self”. The true won­der of Mall of Africa, how­ever, is that, in all of these great African spa­ces, one strug­gles to find any­thing ac­tu­ally African to spend money on. With all that space, could they not spare a few square me­tres to sup­port some lo­cal brands or ar­ti­sans sell­ing things ac­tu­ally made or man­u­fac­tured within the con­ti­nent?

De­spite all this, I can’t help but find my­self re­ar­rang­ing plans I had for the week­end so I can ex­pe­ri­ence it all for my­self. I can’t wait to be drowned in flu­o­res­cent lights that flood my brain with all those mem­o­ries of a child­hood grow­ing up in 1990s Jo­han­nes­burg where Fri­day nights were spent roam­ing the empty cor­ri­dors of shops af­ter the movies. I de­fended my­self from the ma­raud­ing gang of high school boys that used to stalk out­side Wool­worths and I had too many birth­day songs to re­mem­ber sung by “Amer­i­can In­di­ans” at Spur. I kissed a love un­der the painted moon­light-and-LED stars of Monte Casino.

Is the Mall of Africa the worst thing to hap­pen to city plan­ning in Jo­han­nes­burg since apartheid? Yes, it is. Well, along with Steyn City. But now that it’s here, I will not fear it the way I have been since read­ing about it. In the end, I will prob­a­bly treat it the way I did those bul­lies out­side Wool­worths – by run­ning away scream­ing in the op­po­site di­rec­tion.

IN GES­TA­TION While the mega­mall was be­ing con­structed

READY TO RUM­BLE The fin­ished Mall of Africa

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