My flight from the Atlantic city of Cape Town to the Indian Ocean coast took all of two hours and at the end of my taxi ride from the airport I found myself at my hotel, right next to the largest shopping mall in the whole of the Southern Hemisphere. But can you guess where it is? Well, with the likes of Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Sydney and Jakarta in this ‘half’ of the world it may come as a surprise to find that the largest mall is actually in South Africa’s third largest city – Durban. The Gateway Theatre of Shopping is indeed huge, but it’s not the largest in Africa – that is in Casablanca.
As well as being a magnet for tourists with its tropical climate the city also boasts the busiest port in Africa and as such is a vital cog in the economy of South Africa. I didn’t really get a chance to see much else of Durban since the huge mall, situated in the plush northern district of Umhlanga Ridge, had everything I needed for my research. Certainly the mall and its immediate environs feel like a mini self-contained city all of its own!
I say that Durban is a vital part of South Africa’s economy. In 2010 this emerging market nation joined the BRIC association of countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) giving rise to the new acronym of BRICS. Although the smallest in size, population and nominal GDP of these five global emerging markets, the very fact that South Africa was invited by the other members to join the group gives an indication of its standing in the global market. So it should given South Africa has extensive influence over Africa and the success of the country is key to the development of the continent as a whole. Recently, however, the South African currency (the rand) has taken a nosedive against other major currencies due to the volatility of emerging markets. In the past 12 months the rand has depreciated some 37% against the British Pound and 30% against the euro. This may be great news for visiting tourists but the South African central bank has had to raise interest rates for the first time in six years to ease the exchange rate pressures. However, the weak rand has helped break wine export records – volumes are up 26%.
With my time in South Africa now over, I flew from the coast up into the hills of Lesotho, one of only two enclave nations in the world. By enclave I mean that it is wholly surrounded by one other nation, in this case South Africa (the other is San Marino, surrounded by Italy. Some people may also include Vatican City, also surrounded by Italy). Lesotho is a small country, about the same size as Belgium, and has been an entity in its own right since 1822. It wasn’t until 1966, however, that it gained complete independence – from the United Kingdom.
It was my first visit to the country and I was pleasantly surprised by the tiny capital of Maseru. A long and meandering road took me from the airport to the city (more a small town than a city), through small villages with roughly constructed hut-like homes and children running around without a care in the world as their mothers sold fruits at the roadside. Approaching the outskirts of town the homes began to take on features such as tiled roofs and bricks and by the time I got to the characterful Maseru institution of the Lancer’s Inn there were even some modern multi storey office buildings looming in the vicinity.
In all directions views abound of the rolling hills and rocky volcanic outcrops. Immediately to the west of the capital is the Caledon River which forms part of the border between Lesotho and its larger neighbour. I found myself crossing over the border a couple of times during my stay as many expats who work in Maseru actually live over the border in a town called Ladybrand in South Africa. Some expats prefer the supposed more ‘Westernised’ nature of Ladybrand although on the surface of things I didn’t really feel there to be much of a difference. Certainly Maseru, with a wealth of goods available in its many supermarkets, including several South African chains, has more shopping choices. These South African supermarkets make the most of the short supply chains going into its surrounding nations, and the development of local suppliers helps to keep costs down. In fact, Maseru was ranked as the cheapest location for expatriates in the world in ECA’s latest Cost of Living survey.
Cost of Living in Southern Africa doesn’t look like it will be shooting up any time soon. The dominance of the likes of Shoprite, Pick N Pay, Spar and Woolworths in the markets of the region may have new rivals since the American retail giant Walmart has ambitions to succeed in the African market, as does the French chain Carrefour.
As promised, I’ll end with a couple of random, but surprising, facts from around the world.
- There are only two escalators in the US state of Wyoming – an area larger than the United Kingdom!
- It is estimated that at any given time about half the world’s population are wearing jeans!
Who’d have thought it?!