Africa's Obsession With Shopping Malls

Westgate Mall image.jpg

By Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic

A year ago, a friend from rural South Africa called me full of excitement. His hometown, a large village called Burgersfort, was finally “getting on the map,” he said. I had read that the Burgersfort region had been selected to host 15 new chrome and platinum mines, a huge source of jobs in an otherwise jobs-starved country. I assumed it was the mines he meant, and congratulated him on them. But that’s not what he meant at all, he said. “We’re getting a shopping mall.”

There’s a reason the Al Shabab terrorists who attacked the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi on Saturday chose a mall instead of a government building, a downtown street, or a transport hub. Malls are increasingly central to urban African life; they’re the social hearts of the continent’s rapidly expanding cities, places where everyone from Savile Row-tailored diplomats to surfer-shorts-clad backpackers to the upwardly-mobile local middle class and even to the slum-dwelling poor, gather to act out a dream of the African future, one without the gates and barbed wire that divide the rich and poor in their residential areas, without the provisionality and roughness that mar the continent’s public infrastructure. As the Westgate shooting unfolded, a narrative settled that the attackers chose it because it’s frequented by white expats. But the photographs that emerged from the scene showed a different story: An amazingly wide range of people got caught in the crossfire. Attacking a mall struck right at Kenya’s emotional heart, at its new consumer-class vision of itself, like the attack on the World Trade Center towers struck at America’s core vision of itself as a place where hard work lets you touch the sky. Read more ...