A deep-seated national prejudice against conspicuous consumption has been exposed in recent weeks. First there was a furore around businessman Kenny Kunene’s nibbles from sushi-bedecked women. Then journalists ridiculed a Department of Public Works’ tender for golden gravy ladles, cut-glass champagne glasses, and Persian carpets “of presidential standard” for the Bryntirion ministerial estate. Soon afterwards, a Sunday newspaper complained that officials and ministers had flown business class to New York on a “shopping junket”.
Stern media moralists appear to share the view first advanced by Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, Heribert Adam, and Kogila Moodley in 1998, that the liberation movement has been “liberated into the bourgeois lifestyle of its opponents”. In their book Comrades in Business they ridiculed male ANC MPs for their “daring ties, silk and quasi-military style suits” and their female counterparts for “fancy hats and ostentatious dresses”.
Such critics do not offer a balanced account of the role of shopping in South African society.
First, shopping played a significant role in the country’s transition to democracy. Sociologist Jonathan Hyslop observed more than a decade ago that, “as barricades burned in the townships, and armoured vehicles rolled through their streets, whites poured endlessly into the shops and malls in an apparent frenzy of consumption”. Middle class whites, and especially socially mobile Afrikaners, attached themselves to “lifestyle” aspirations. When the crunch came, shopping proved to be more important to them than defending a moribund racial ideology.
Second, conspicuous consumption provides the only conceivable basis for the development of a cross-racial national identity in South Africa.
Third, materialism in South Africa is balanced by conservative social attitudes. An article in International Journal of Consumer Studies last August showed that countries such as China have a far more advanced consumption culture than ours. For Chinese youth, material possessions now lie at the centre of conceptions of human happiness.
South Africans often delight in being seen to consume goods rather than in actually consuming them. They enjoy passing time in underground shopping malls devoid of natural light. Their hearts are stirred by the great names in South African retailing: Pick n Pay, Mr. Price, Foschini, Clicks, and Spur. Who can visit Sandton City or the 60,000 square metres of Soweto’s Maponya Mall and leave unmoved by the greatness of their creators’ imaginations?
In most societies, shopping is an instrument of class division. The aesthetic preferences of the rich and the powerful are viewed as superior to the tastes of the lower classes. Yet in South Africa, aesthetics are becoming uniquely and genuinely democratic: whatever their race and gender, and no matter how poor or wealthy they may be, absolutely everyone appears to have bad taste.
We must not forget the dark side of materialism. Poor citizens are excluded from the new catherdrals of consumption. Poverty continues to serve as a barrier to the creativity and individuality that could potentially be expressed through still more national participation in shopping.
The significance of shopping has been hidden by the sinister brotherhood of South African historians who have mostly limited their research to the realm of production (noble workers and exploitative captains of industry). They have ignored shopping as a women’s activity of little relevance to historical and political change.
In recent years, however, it is South Africa’s male politicians who have taken to consumer culture like fish to an aquarium. Gay icon and ANC Youth League president Julius Malema is so beautifully dressed that he sometimes resembles a shop window dummy. Rugged police commissioner Bheki Cele has shown that even a tough guy can expose his feminine side, by shopping for hats and dressing up for fun in fake military uniforms. It cannot be long before shopping is recognized as a key “motive force” in the ANC’s national democratic revolution.