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From shanty town to shopping mall

South African on the site of the new Maponya Mall in Soweto, a township that was synonymous with neglect and revolt during apartheid.

TEXT OF STORY

Scott Jagow: Today is Nelson Mandela's birthday; he's 90 years old.

South Africa has come a long way since apartheid, not just socially, but economically as well.

Gretchen Wilson gives us exhibit A.


Gretchen Wilson: At this Guess clothing store, customers paw through racks of designer jeans and T-shirts. Sales here are exceeding all expectations.

This mall has everything from Prada sandals to Bulgari sunglasses, but it's in one of South Africa's former shanty towns, Soweto. This place was a hub of political activism during the anti-apartheid movement. Now it's the seat of South Africa's emerging middle class.

Store manager Themba Dlamini says these days Sowetans want to be known for their buying power, not their poverty.

Themba Dlamini: The thing is you look at this new mall, people, they feel, you know -- at last! They've got something that they can look and be proud of. Everybody's excited about it.

Everybody including Nelson Mandela, who headlined the mall's opening ceremony.

And if you look past the fountains and skylights in this $65-million superstructure, it tells an even bigger story about how the country's economic aims have shifted in the 14 years since apartheid ended: from radical social democracy to full-scale capitalism.

Kliptown, Soweto, is an area just a few miles from where the mall now stands. Back in 1955, Nelson Mandela joined communists and other activists at this very spot. They called for the nationalization of the country's mining and banking industries. But after apartheid, the new leadership focused more on privatization and trade agreements than tightening government's grip on business.

Political analyst Dale McKinley:

Dale McKinley: Capital-friendly policies were adopted across the board.

While that alienated the ruling party's longtime allies -- the Communist party and the Trade Union Federation -- it reassured international investors and it sparked GDP growth of about 5 percent nationwide.

That's a catalyst for consumer spending and businesses are thriving. In Soweto, shoppers say they're glad Johannesburg's formerly white suburbs are now not the only place to buy the latest fashions.

In Soweto, South Africa, I'm Gretchen Wilson for Marketplace.

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