In a sense, you can see all of South Africa from the unfinished concrete roof of Morris Modipa’s bar on Avenue 15 in Johannesburg’s Alexandra Township.
What conclusions you draw from the view depends on your attitude toward the continent’s biggest economy, and its uncertain future.
Do you focus on the squalor of almost a million people packed into makeshift, often rat-infested, homes? And the long line outside the nearby community centre, where the poorest have again gathered to receive soup and blankets?
“We are angry. Because this is not the freedom that we fought for,” says longtime community activist Linda Twala, handing out blankets, and lamenting the enduring presence of corruption and drug lords.
“We need jobs, we need houses ... we need dignity.”
Or do you lift your head a little, and notice the tarmacked streets leading to neat rows of new housing on the far hillside, the impressive motorway behind, and, to the north, the train racing out of a new tunnel en route to Johannesburg’s refurbished airport?
“I’m inspired by what’s around me, the changes around me,” says Mr. Morris (24), an affable person who needs to get downstairs to finish preparations for the night’s regular street party, which spills out of his soon-to-be renovated bar, Stoep15, and often attracts celebrities.
“It’s going to take a while, but change is definitely there. It is up to the youth ... to get up on their own two feet and make a difference. We can complain, but no one else is going to make the difference,” he says.
South Africa’s economy — buffeted by labour unrest, political uncertainties and the seemingly endless aftershocks of racial apartheid — is not roaring ahead like some of its neighbours.
In the context of the much touted and much questioned theme of “Africa Rising”, South Africa stands apart — still the continent’s largest and most sophisticated economy, but one that is warped and weighed down by its own unique history and contradictions.
And yet in Alexandra, businessmen like Tebogo Mogashoa share the broader mood of optimism that is rippling across much of Africa these days.
“The future is bright,” says Mr. Mogashoa (37) as he strides through what he believes may be the busiest — and for its size, the most profitable — shopping centre on the continent.
Mr. Mogashoa built the PanAfrica Mall four years ago on the crowded edge of Alexandra to cater for the local market.
There is a KFC and McDonald’s on the corner, a big Pick n Pay supermarket inside and a cacophony of honking minibus taxis, touting for business, on the street outside as well as on the mall’s car park roof.
“This mall tells the story of the potential of South Africa ... in that it’s a depressed economy where there is poverty, but there can also be an upside of success and wealth creation. As you can see, people here are not poor. They actually live on a strictly cash basis where they are not exposed to any debt,” he says.
“This shopping centre hosts close to a million people per month. It’s growing at about 10 per cent per annum.”
Mr. Mogashoa, whose business has expanded into finance and other ventures, is a now a multimillionaire with a sumptuous office and a taste for motor racing.
He seems clear-eyed about the challenges of poor education and corruption in South Africa, and the need for government to do much more to provide infrastructure and stimulate investment.
But he is resolutely unconvinced by the pessimists and their statistics.
“The high unemployment figures (of around 25 per cent) discount what we call the second economy. Many people who trade in the informal economy are not recorded. We are seeing a lot of new capital getting into the pockets of the people of the historically poor areas like Alex,” says Mr. Mogashoa, walking down the crowded supermarket aisles of Pick n Pay.
“What is attractive about this country is its political stability, notwithstanding the social unrest and the reports in the media. The future of this country is fairly predictable within reason and the issues of crime as well as education levels can be addressed in time. It’s a country under construction, so there are opportunities to build more.”
A few hundred yards away, Ernest and Bella Mkhwanazi are trying to grab those opportunities.
They started cooking and selling pickled mango in their home in Alexandra, but have now opened a popular restaurant Bellaskie opposite the local police station, offering stewed tripe and other delicacies to a growing middle-class clientele.
“We want to be the next Kentucky Fried Tripe,” jokes Mr. Mkhwanazi. “The next Nandos as well. We’re very optimistic.”
But funding is a problem.
“We are still struggling. Africa will become very strong once leaders think of people on the ground, not themselves,” he says.
“They have to support small businesses like ours. At the moment we are not getting that help. I’m 100 per cent sure that South Africa is going in the right direction. We can see the light. But it is not coming fast enough.” — © BBC News/Distributed by the New York Times Syndicate