The Dubai of South­ern Africa?

Jo­han­nes­burg’s In­ner City

Indwe - - Contents - Text: Dr Tanya Zack: Vis­it­ing se­nior lec­turer, Univer­sity of the Wit­wa­ter­srand/www.the­con­ver­sa­ Im­ages ©

Over the last 20 years Jo­han­nes­burg has be­come an in­tense whole­sale and re­tail cen­tre for lo­cal hawk­ers as well as traders from all over Sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa. Bil­lions of rands’ worth of fast fash­ion is sold an­nu­ally in the tra­di­tional cen­tral busi­ness dis­trict and in 20 large Chi­nese shop­ping malls west of the in­ner city.

It is a vast, boom­ing, low-end glob­alised trade that has trans­formed space and pi­o­neered a re­tail phe­nom­e­non in the in­ner city for the sale of cheap cloth­ing, shoes, house­hold wares and ac­ces­sories. In­for­mal es­ti­mates based on bus pas­sen­ger num­bers and spend­ing re­ported in a re­cent sur­vey sug­gest that cross-bor­der shop­pers are col­lec­tively spend­ing over R10 bil­lion an­nu­ally in Jo­han­nes­burg’s CBD.

A new study into cross-bor­der shop­ping in the in­ner city maps the shops and the goods sold. Re­searchers con­ducted de­tailed in­ter­views with 300 re­tail­ers and 400 cross-bor­der shop­pers, as well as ho­tel man­agers and bus op­er­a­tors that ser­vice the flow of shop­pers who travel to Jo­han­nes­burg from coun­tries such as Mozam­bique, Zim­babwe, Malawi, Le­sotho, Swazi­land and Zam­bia.

The sur­vey gave the first con­crete in­sights into a vast trad­ing web that op­er­ates in the cash econ­omy and be­low

the radar of for­malised plan­ning reg­u­la­tion. Yet it is an econ­omy yield­ing four times the an­nual turnover of an av­er­age re­gion­al­sized shop­ping mall.

The ex­tent of the trade isn’t re­ally known, and the scale of cross-bor­der shop­ping is widely dis­puted in city of­fices and among prop­erty in­vestors. But the sur­vey shows that the city of Jo­han­nes­burg should ac­knowl­edge that its in­ner city has de­vel­oped into the shop­ping hub of Sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa. Some re­tail­ers have dubbed it the “Dubai of South Africa”. That am­bi­tion – that it be a global re­tail cen­tre – should be em­braced in eco­nomic strat­egy, and in phys­i­cal plans to up­grade the area.

A HIVE OF UN­RE­PORTED AC­TIV­ITY The re­search focuses on 53 city blocks within the Jo­han­nes­burg CBD an­chored by more than 3,000 shops. Th­ese are streets that bus­tle with street traders, ground-level shop­ping al­leys and high­rise shop­ping cen­tres. The shop­ping zone is close to rail, bus and taxi in­fra­struc­ture. It is also served by cross-bor­der bus de­pots and ho­tels.

The shop­ping hub is in­tense, with throngs of pedes­tri­ans and de­ter­mined shop­pers crowd­ing the streets on any given day. Build­ings that have out­lived their use­ful­ness as of­fice space and med­i­cal suites have been ap­pro­pri­ated and con­verted at a rapid rate – pri­mar­ily by mi­grant Ethiopian traders – into shop­ping cen­tres host­ing thou­sands of cup­board­sized shops.

This ac­tiv­ity has de­vel­oped over two decades. It started as a quiet en­croach­ment of space in the mid-1990s when Ethiopian sur­vival­ist en­trepreneurs, who had fled their coun­try to seek po­lit­i­cal asy­lum in South Africa, rented space in al­most empty of­fice tow­ers. The space grew first in­cre­men­tally and then in rapid bursts to be­come a bur­geon­ing eco­nomic en­clave cre­ated through the dra­matic oc­cu­pa­tion and sub­di­vi­sion of space.

Based on the in­ter­views, we cal­cu­lated that the an­nual profit tak­ings in the city blocks we sur­veyed amounts to close to

R7 bil­lion ev­ery year. But this is likely to be a ma­jor un­der­es­ti­mate.

The sample sur­vey in­di­cates that about 70 % of the shop­pers con­tribut­ing to th­ese prof­its are cross-bor­der shop­pers. Each shop­per is spend­ing an av­er­age of R14,364 on goods per shop­ping trip. In ad­di­tion, R3,497 is spent on other ser­vices, in­clud­ing trans­port.

A large num­ber of bus com­pa­nies are linked to the trade. On one day, 51 bus com­pa­nies were op­er­at­ing from 19 sites. In that same week, a mod­er­ate shop­ping sea­son of the year (mid-Au­gust), 465 buses car­ry­ing up to 60 pas­sen­gers each – many of th­ese be­ing shop­pers – left Jo­han­nes­burg to travel to neigh­bour­ing coun­tries.


But re­tail­ers and shop­pers face enor­mous risks. The de­pen­dence on cash poses a big risk in an area rife with crime and cor­rup­tion, and where law en­force­ment agen­cies ap­pear to be com­plicit in illegal ac­tiv­i­ties.

Over 60 % of re­tail­ers in­ter­viewed said they had been phys­i­cally at­tacked or as­saulted. And 38 % had reg­u­larly “gifted” po­lice of­fi­cers.

For shop­pers the risk is also ex­treme. A third of shop­pers in­ter­viewed had been ex­posed to vi­o­lent crime. They travel in groups and hide their money. They de­pend heav­ily on the se­cu­rity and stor­age fa­cil­i­ties of ho­tels and bus de­pots for safety.

Th­ese lev­els of crime are a ma­jor en­croach­ment on Jo­han­nes­burg’s abil­ity to max­imise the ben­e­fits of th­ese shop­ping trips. Shop­pers are spend­ing an av­er­age of two-and-a-half days on each trip. But they spend com­par­a­tively lit­tle on ac­com­mo­da­tion and al­most noth­ing on en­ter­tain­ment. And they are too fear­ful to spend more time in Jo­han­nes­burg than their shop­ping re­quires.

Most said they didn’t use city res­tau­rants, pre­fer­ring to lock them­selves in their ho­tel rooms in the early evening. And re­tail­ers said they would like ex­tended shop­ping hours but they close shops around 17h00 be­cause of safety con­cerns.

UN­TAPPED PO­TEN­TIAL Cross-bor­der shop­pers are in­ter­na­tional vis­i­tors to Jo­han­nes­burg. Their vis­its in­crease the de­mand for ser­vices, prod­ucts and good in­fra­struc­ture – all of which at­tract jobs and in­vest­ment to the in­ner city. They re­quire and in­spire new in­vest­ment in build­ings,

main­te­nance, en­ter­tain­ment ser­vices, trans­porta­tion ser­vices and ac­com­mo­da­tion es­tab­lish­ments. They trans­form build­ings and en­vi­ron­ments. And they at­tract and sup­port new cul­tural en­claves and di­ver­sity.

Shop­pers and re­tail­ers say they would like to in­crease their in­vest­ment in shop­ping in the in­ner city, there are signs of re­newed in­ter­est from prop­erty in­vestors, and a num­ber of new shop­ping cen­tres have been de­vel­oped in re­cent years.

But this po­ten­tial will go un­tapped un­less the city changes its at­ti­tude and tack­les the risks in the area. Crime – par­tic­u­larly crime com­mit­ted by law en­force­ment of­fi­cers – must be curbed. By recog­nis­ing and cel­e­brat­ing this Sub-Sa­ha­ran African shop­ping hub, Jo­han­nes­burg can take full ad­van­tage of the ben­e­fits that come with it. In turn, that could lead to Jo­han­nes­burg be­com­ing the host of choice for shop­pers and re­tail­ers in this in­ter­na­tional trade.

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