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Walmart and South Africa’s misplaced inadequacy

I think South Africa has a small touch of an inferiority complex. An amazing country, with so much potential, but you just don’t always know it.  At least I’m assuming this to be the reason why business leaders, government and excited shoppers have rolled over and prepared for a “corrective” rape from one of the Western world’s most voracious, parasitic, unethical companies.

Welcome Walmart!  Please come and turn us into a global economy, please help us be more competitive and better resemble the great US of A. 

If only.

The Economist recently reported that although trade unions are wary, “cash-strapped shoppers are happy. And so are South African businesspeople. Their country seems a little more welcoming, and its institutions a little more independent.”

Good luck with that. Trade union employees are cash-strapped shoppers.

Anyone who’s been paying attention for the last 20 years would have a hard time finding much good to say about this American behemoth of a company. Over the years Walmart has been embroiled in scandal after scandal, from discrimination against women to harmful labour practices to racism.

A 2004 report released by California congressman George Miller found that Walmart swindles employees and screws over the American public.

“There’s no question that Walmart imposes a huge, often hidden, cost on its workers, our communities and US taxpayers,” said Miller at the launch of the report. “And Walmart is in the driver’s seat in the global race to the bottom, suppressing wage levels, workplace protections and labour laws.” 

In many circles in North America the word Walmart is anathema to anyone who respects human rights. Most of my friends wouldn’t dare enter a Walmart store, despite the “always low prices”. Too many people have suffered to keep those prices so low — I know I don’t want to suffer the guilt of shopping there.

Back when Walmart came to my Canadian hometown in 1994 we watched with horror as other successful retailers were put out of business and the retail sector was reduced substantially, limiting our choices as shoppers. It’s a bit like one of those invasive species that multiply and never go away. You have the jacaranda and it’s lovely and purple and blooms every year despite being alien.  Walmart won’t be so pleasant once it gets its roots into South African soil. 

It’s a strange choice, considering South Africa already has so many great chain retailers that already sell products at very reasonable prices. It was a bit like McDonald’s trying to sell the McFalafel in Israel.  Why would hungry people buy a mass-produced falafel from a revolting, unhealthy, unethical fast-food enterprise when they can find a fresh, tastier version on every street corner? They won’t, which is why McD’s recently removed it from the menu after less than a year.

But menu items can be removed, certainly not invasive species like Walmart.

One of the things I love about South Africa is the shopping. My husband and I adore Woolworths. We spend hours there every weekend marvelling at the incredible selection of organic and free range goods available at the same price as regular items. This is not the reality in North America where such items are considered “exclusive” at retailers like Walmart.

Granted, we have more money than most South Africans, but I love that even cheaper shopping options like Pick n Pay, Fruit and Veg and Checkers all sell good quality, South African goods.

And in reality, South Africa already has its own version of Walmart: Game. A local distributor of shoddy products – but you can’t top those prices, right? Despite the prices, I know I’ve never bought anything from Game that didn’t fall apart within a few days.  If you want the lowest prices, be prepared to get the cheapest products. 

Of course Walmart executives have fallen over themselves making all sorts of promises about selling local goods, respecting local rules, etc. But why does South Africa need Walmart at all?

Next thing your leaders will be soliciting international advice on how to beautify the South African countryside and create better national parks, or opening your doors to American wine producers, or contracting foreign companies to help you successfully host an international sporting event.

South Africa has a lot going for it and these strengths should not be the focus of government, economic and cultural leaders. Why not focus on bringing in international help for those things you actually need to improve, or for those sectors that could use a little competition?

For starters, South Africa should hire someone to come in and improve government bureaucracy. What about help with crime, roads, police corruption, HIV and Aids, and the horrendous and increasing instances of rape and gender-based violence? 

When it comes to retailers and business, South Africa could probably use international help with restaurants and eating-out options. Mail & Guardian editor Nic Dawes recently referred to Johannesburg as a “culinary desert” and he’s right.

My husband and I struggle to find restaurants or even fast-food shops where we can eat the same organic, free range, healthy goods available at Woolworths. We were recently looking for lunch at a large Johannesburg mall and walked from one end of the mall to the other, twice, incredibly hungry, and in the end decided we’d rather buy food and go home and cook it ourselves.

What about telecommunications? Wow, does South Africa ever need help there. I’ve complained endlessly about Telkom since arriving, going as far as to award it the prize for worst service I’ve ever received. Why don’t South Africa’s leaders let other companies compete and show Telkom how it should be done?

There are reasons why South Africa is inferior to other parts of the world and shopping options is not one of them. There are reasons why South Africa is greatly superior to other countries. My humble advice, stick to what you do best and get help with those problems you aren’t solving on your own.