Soweto Takes Pride in Its New Wheels

Shoppers at a mall in Soweto, a township built a century ago outside Johannesburg to house black workers, study a car at the Soweto Motor Show.
Shoppers at a mall in Soweto, a township built a century ago outside Johannesburg to house black workers, study a car at the Soweto Motor Show. (Craig Timberg - Twp)

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By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 1, 2005

SOWETO, South Africa -- Some people whistled in admiration. Some made revving sounds. Some just gazed at the metallic blue Chrysler Crossfire displayed one recent afternoon -- its hood open, hot-rod style -- in the Protea Gardens mall, here in South Africa's largest and most historic township.

Few onlookers had the means to plunk down $62,000 for a two-seat convertible with little practical use. But the presence of such a car, and the staging of Soweto's first-ever motor show, stirred a palpable sense of pride in a community that was once known for its fierce uprising against apartheid but that is now being recognized for the clout of its growing consumer class.

"I was so surprised when I came here. It's just like in town," said Joyce Nemakhavhani, 49, a teacher, watching as a friend perched in the seat of a purple PT Cruiser. "Now we want even more shopping."

There have been many setbacks in the 11 years since the end of apartheid. Joblessness, crime, stubborn racial inequities and a rampant new disease, AIDS, have taken the luster off the smooth transition to multiracial democracy.

Yet South Africa is also experiencing the rise of a black middle class, one that is increasingly being courted by clothiers, restaurant chains and supermarkets. And although Soweto has just a single auto dealership, other businesses are gradually beginning to locate here and in the other densely populated townships where most blacks still live.

Protea Gardens mall is one sign of this progress. It opened this year as the biggest, most stylish shopping center in Soweto, a township built a century ago outside Johannesburg to house black workers and their families while keeping them as invisible as hundreds of thousands of people could be.

Today the area's population is estimated at between 1.5 million and 4 million. Overall, 79 percent of South Africa's 44 million people are black.

Except for the customers' skin color, the mall is virtually indistinguishable from those in the posh, mostly white suburbs north of Johannesburg, a half-hour drive from here. The Chrysler exhibit was set among a kitchenware store, a curtain shop and a cluster of banks, each opening onto an expanse of polished stone flooring.

Yet the display of vehicles at the Soweto Motor Show produced far more longing than buying. Police officer Duncan Radebe, 41, sat in a Chrysler Grand Voyager with his service revolver strapped to his right hip. He rattled off a series of questions to a salesman, Zwelie Ncube, asking about the engine size, air bags, gas mileage, fuel capacity, and even about the deposit needed to take the minivan home.

Finally, a fellow officer blurted, "You can't afford this, man!"

As Radebe walked away, the father of three said he had reached the same conclusion. His family would have to continue cramming into their 1984 Volkswagen Golf rather than spending $60,000 on a new, fully loaded minivan.

"If I'm working hard," he added, "I might be promoted to the next rank. Then maybe I could buy one like this."


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