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How to future-proof malls

Published Jul 28, 2021


Cape Town - As more than 360 malls and shopping centres were burnt down and looted, a handful remained standing during South Africa’s recent week of unrest, violence and looting.

The Maponya Mall – the biggest shopping mall in Soweto – was one of those saved. It was held guard by community members, led by Nhlanhla Lux Dlamini, a member of the Soweto Youth Parliament.

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Thanks to communities, there were those who, without a second thought, jumped in and protected properties against being accessed by vandals and looters when police and private security companies could not act.

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“This is not the ideal situation… but it does bring to light the role that communities can play beyond simply being one-way beneficiaries of ‘feel-good’ CSI initiatives,” says SA Institute of Black Property Professionals (SAIBPP) chief executive Vuyiswa Ramokgopa.

“When companies value the communities within which they operate and look for opportunities to partner with them, versus just giving to them or talking at them, they are able to realise greater shared value and manage long-term risk,” she says.

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Ramokgopa called on businesses and communities to form new, formalised alliances to bring the poor into the economy in order to future-proof the country from the devastation of further lockdowns and unrest.

She said crisis after crisis has served as a wake-up call to the country “to do things differently, to form these new alliances and new social values that will ultimately create a true sense of belonging for all who call this country home”.

Ramokgopa said it had been demonstrated that where communities had a sense of ownership of public spaces (or even private spaces such as at Maponya Mall), they were more likely to maintain them and protect them from vandalism or destruction.

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As a result, she said, some forms of businesses, such as shopping malls, could “become islands in a sea of poverty, disconnected from the communities within which they operate”.

SAIBPP president Tholo Makhaola said that while the Institute denounced the recent violence “we cannot underestimate that some of the looting is because of the joblessness created by Covid and the lockdowns which has left people hungry and frustrated”.

A first step to bring about change called for a shift in the understanding of the relationship between business and local communities, Ramokgopa said.

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Businesses needed to see the communities within which they operated as “value-adding stakeholders (and even as potential shareholders) and create sustainable long-term opportunities for partnership with the people who support and sustain their businesses”.

The pandemic, the lockdowns and recent unrest have certainly thrown off the blinkers highlighting the growing chasm between the haves and have-nots. “There has not been enough emphasis on the local economy in the townships, the bastions of apartheid. We need to reimagine and rebuild things differently.” said Makhaola.

Ramokgopa said the Institute has long been grappling with the questions: “How do we truly start to enable a sense of belonging and redesign a more inclusive and representative economy?

“How do we start to shift away from the mere cosmetics and compliance of transformation to a much more sustainable state of shared vision and shared value?”

Makhaola said the models we had were unsustainable and “there are many gaps in the economy, and indeed extra ones have been created as the pandemic has scuppered potential government plans to stimulate the economy”.

Retail in the townships had suffered and it was important to encourage township economic hubs.

“We need to safeguard people's livelihoods. Business and government need to sit at the table with the communities to work out a formal model that will help us work our way out of the dilemma."

He said the township market remained one with huge potential.

“But, how do we turn them into thriving economic hubs? What opportunities are available for local entrepreneurs, the informal sector, and the communities they serve? What model best suits the development of localised industry?"

Ramokgopa said immediate ways to do that included:

- Companies who operated in or derived income from rural and township communities to establish real localised broad-based ownership schemes that enabled locals and/or employees to invest directly in the companies and share in the rewards and the risk.

- Enforcing policies that focus on substantive local procurement, localised enterprise development, and ensuring that shopping centres that operate in township and rural areas have a minimum percentage of local businesses represented in their tenant mix.

- Shopping centres to operate beyond just providing access to retail; they could be social meeting spaces, providing entertainment, access to internet, edutainment, and be a space for families to gather, thereby strengthening the social fabric. And of course, they serve an important role in providing employment and spaces where people could access essential social services.

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