One of the most terrible legacies of the ‘separate but equal development’ that apartheid purported to bring about is the cramped spatial planning that was implemented when urban townships were developed. Small matchbox houses were not the only result of such planning in most townships; business developments that required large spaces to operate could not be undertaken, owing to the lack of space. For years, this stifled the development of the township economy, even after the dawn of democracy in 1994.
That Soweto had a huge mall – Maponya Mall – only in the year 2007 is the result of not only a lack of financial planning but also space restrictions in the townships. Townships of several million people, such as Alexandra, still do not have a mall of the proportions of Sandton City or Maponya Mall. Tembisa and Ivory Park, on the East Rand, have a combined population of over one-million people, but there is only one modern mall to service all those people.
How does one get around that terrible spatial planning, which resulted in some stands being as small as only 100 m2?
Phosa Wholesalers specialises in the distribution of alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages. As one can imagine, such a business requires several township stands put together for it to operate efficiently and profitably. The entrepreneur behind this business chose to gradually buy out the neighbouring stands to expand the warehouse where the beverages are kept and to create enough space for forklift operations and delivery truck manoeuvring. Over the years, the small wholesale business has developed into a sizeable operation that would rival any wholesaler based in a favourable location in town.
This strategy of buying out neighbours and taking over their stands has also been successfully used by many foreign-born entrepreneurs, who seem to focus mostly on fast-moving consumer goods. In certain cases, house owners who prefer not to reside in developing business areas but to simply sell their houses in those areas at a higher price and then proceed to buy a lower-priced house elsewhere in the same township
Getting around spatial restrictions is not limited to the goods and services sector in the townships, with many township entrepreneurs who have chosen to focus on providing residential accommodation also having taken to using the small stands to their fullest by resorting to building double-storey structures. It is not unusual to see significantly large double-storey residential or business buildings surrounded by ordinary ‘matchbox’ houses, owing to entrepreneurs making use of the small spaces.
Another way of getting around the problem of space in the township economy that has not been fully explored is the use of stadiums and halls as venues for pop-up shops and other events. Although much planning and logistics go into the planning of these sorts of events, the novelty of the events bring a fresh dimension to township consumers, who are only exposed to these when they shop in nearby towns.
Based on the successful hosting of 24-hour musical events at venues like Mehlareng stadium, in Tembisa, over the festive season, it is quite possible to host trade exhibitions intended to be held for a set number of days at a specific secured venue. The entrepreneurial spirit in the township economy requires this sort of out-of-the-box thinking to drive investment and, therefore, employment in the township economy.
This, of course, would have to go hand in hand with the relaxation of municipal by-laws to ensure that attendance at such business events is not discouraged by the chronic lack of parking space that characterises business operations in the townships. Music events such as the one that is held each year at Mehlareng stadium on Christmas Day are successful only because of the close cooperation between the Metro Police Department, the event organisers and the community. In fact, in most cases, such events herald a day of possible temporary business opportunities for the enterprising township residents who take advantage of the unusually huge numbers of people at the events. They can provide parking in their yards for a fee and also sell unique items for the convenience of people attending the events.