On my radar: China Syndrome

2014-03-07 10:00

The Chinese shopkeeper taking a smoke break on the street in Plettenberg Bay was surreal to say the least.

He stood out like a sore thumb: neither a local, nor the well-heeled, mink-and- manure polo set that takes over the small coastal town during the December holiday season.

In high season, he might have been taken for just another tourist. But I was visiting Plett off season?–?when you see the real dynamics of a small coastal town?–?and what I saw disturbed me.

For years, I’ve taken off-season holidays in Plett but had not been to this neck of the woods for several years. Seeing the long-term effects of a protracted economic downturn on a small town in South Africa was sobering.

In cities like Joburg, The Great Recession (as it is now being called) is talked about in statistics and figures.

Economists and analysts fill media space with projections, assumptions and speculations on the impact on retail and consumer spend and the working classes. The upper middle classes use the information as dinner-party fodder while the new elite simply buy handbags.

Back in Plett, the coastal town, the economists’ statistics and analysis manifest in the cruelest of ways.

“To let” signs are everywhere and the empty retail spaces serve as harsh reminders of how transient the holiday season really is. The Great Recession has shrunk Plett’s economy by about one-fifth.

For a small town, losing 20% of your consumer business is devastating. Add to that the fact that 60% of South Africa’s economy is driven by consumer spend and you understand the devastating ripple effect of those “to let” signs.

Just off Plett’s high street are smaller shopping centres where the local community shops. There is now a ubiquitous mix of second-hand stores and cheap clothing stores, owned and manned by Chinese nationals.

I’m used to the large discount centres in Joburg, but the proliferation of these smaller retailers is new and unexpected in a far-flung coastal town like Plett.

The same scenario plays out 20 minutes down the Garden Route in Knysna. Empty shop fronts and “to let” signs dominate the once-vibrant main street.

Knysna has always had a bohemian reputation as a creative hippie hub?but it has been replaced by shops selling airtime, stocking cheap clothing or homeware and (a first for me) R5 shops.

The only evidence of business growth is a new shopping mall, but all its tenants are our local mass retailers found everywhere in South Africa.

If I was a first-time visitor to the area, I’d question what the fuss is about: besides the spectacular geography it is soulless, homogenous and bland.

We are not alone in this shift to ubiquitous blandness. In the past five years, independent retailers the world over have closed their doors as cash-strapped consumers migrated to the mass retailers.

My point is not that China dominates this value chain – it always has. I’m lamenting the loss of creativity and individuality as the recession forces us to embrace the lowest common denominator.

Independent retail is collateral damage in a globalised world, and cheap is not necessarily cheerful

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