The Time Traveler: If the shoe fits...

14 June 2019
Author   Hugh Ellis
The other day I went shoe shopping and was very disappointed.
It seems no shoe shop in Windhoek truly caters for those with feet over size 10, certainly not for a size 12. The practice of ordering a customer’s size from your supplier if you don’t have it in stock (with the customer making a down-payment) used to be standard, but now seems to be unheard of.
Some shop assistants look at you like you are a freak of nature. Like you just got off the spaceship from Mars and complained loudly that your tentacles were hurting in this climate.
I do not want to make this column solely about my ‘first world problems’.
I’m lucky to be able to afford new shoes at all. The statistical majority of Namibians have no more than a pair of plakkies, or ancient veldskoene, much less the luxury of having a pair of work shoes, another pair for gym, Converse All-Stars for the party, maybe some slippers...
But still, it did get me thinking about Namibia’s retail space and how it works, or how it is dysfunctional.
When I first arrived in Namibia in the early 90s, Windhoek only had one real, proper shopping mall in the shape of Wernhil.
There were, I feel, more specialist shops. At least, such shops were more prominent. They were expensive, and owned almost exclusively by the white minority; their staff could be extremely prissy but you knew what you bought was quality and would last.
It seems we have replaced this with ‘mall culture’: big, fancy malls and stores, shopping becoming a lifestyle event in itself, South African and Western chain-stores dominating the space, mostly still owned by the white minority...
Namibian indigenous businesses trying to enter the local mall culture, such as My Republik clothing, seem mainly to have fallen at the first hurdle, unable to match the advertising, purchasing and space-renting power of Edgars, Truworths or Foschini.
Speaking as a 90s Wernhil mall rat (yes, that was a thing) I don’t know if we have improved or we have replaced one bad system of shopping with another, equally bad, one.
One thing is for sure: there is big money in the game. I’ve lived in Windhoek on-and-off 25 years, and mall construction is the one economic activity that never seems to stop.
President Hage Geingob recently opened Phase 4 of Wernhil mall, representing a total investment of over half a billion Namibian dollars, bringing the total number of retail outlets in just that mall to 130.
Despite our supposed dire economic times, someone must be spending money.
I’m not sure how much of it goes to the average shop assistant or coffee-shop waiter. I couldn’t find any rock-solid information, but I’ve known people earning no more than 2000 to 4000 a month in those jobs.
This makes me think that the real money is going to the Broll and Safland and Edgars and HiFi Corporation shareholders. Many of these investors are pension funds. So at least I suppose I’ll be able to retire one day, and will be able to thank that overpriced pair of jeans for what is an increasingly rare privilege in modern society.
When I saw Dr Geingob on the news opening Wernhil, I couldn’t help but think of Government’s proposal to institute a ‘voluntary’ two per cent tax to fund drought relief. Others have said it would be better to cut back on executive car fleets or increase mining royalties, but here’s my suggestion: tax the malls!
My favorite part of any Namibian mall is that pop-up shop at the one end of Maerua that sells ‘African print’ shirts and dresses.
With its shop front of simple clothes racks, its bright colours and its individual style, it looks and feels like an African market place, as opposed to the rest of the mall (and most malls) which would look the same if it were in Frankfurt or New York.
I can’t help but feel that if we want to solve some of the ‘first world problems’ of the Windhoek retail experience, we could start at a worse place than by bringing some of that ‘developing world spirit’ not to mention actual craftsmanship, back into our squeaky-clean, over-globalized, culturally sanitized temples of shopping.
With that said, I’m off to the Tura to find me a shoe-maker.
Hugh Ellis is a lecturer in the Department of Communication of the Namibia University of Science and Technology. The views expressed here are personal views. Catch him at the mall, or, better, on Twitter: @ellis_hugh


The Windhoek Observer is an English-language weekly newspaper, published in Namibia by Paragon Investment Holding. It is the country's oldest and largest circulating weekly.

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