The scale of new luxury retail parks on the American East Coast evokes an eerie graveyardlike image where the assorted dead leave to rot, limbs hanging like rotting pikes. Lifestyle centers are no different. South Africa’s largest entertainment and shopping destination, Elephant, locates its brands and festivals on land that is barely 21 acres, and from where tour bus traffic is minimal.
To the shoppers driving in, Elephant’s quiet, intentional design and undemanding experience seems an anomaly. On a cloudy afternoon, I visit the edgy, permanent attraction while its self-sustaining community of 7,000 South Africans work and shop. This isn’t your stereotypical Walmart zone. Elephant is a great opportunity for tourists, and it brings back a sense of the island’s suburban tenor—like the dogs park, playground and children’s zoos in nearby Memebo—but not a trip full of processed food.
Eating and shopping is the main components of South Africa’s tourism industry. However, agriculture is the foundation. South Africa grows 90 percent of the world’s sweet blackberries and has been a silver-green wine country for many years. Located 100 miles southeast of Cape Town, it has an average rainfall and vegetation comparable to Napa, California.
Elephant is a massive contradiction of over-the-top luxury with an astonishingly vibrant community. Two enclosed, white-walled malls, each bigger than a city block, divide the park into a central courtyard and 10 villas that are open to the public. (You don’t even need to enter the mall to shop; take a photo of the tree made famous in the award-winning Sofia Coppola movie “The Bling Ring.”) You know the Little Mermaid when you see it. I couldn’t get my goldfish back home!
While I spent nine days in this tourist-friendly city, I never felt like I was in some stereotypical shopping center.
On Elephantshops.com, an app that scans QR codes, I found an amazing “Kho Mzimba” onyx object that sold for 4,000 rand (about $320). A guy from Chichester, West Sussex, once walked out of an antique shop with a bejeweled Picasso mask that was valued at more than 100,000 rand (approximately $9,600). In Elephant, you can even sell your vintage booze collection to an old-timer from KwaZulu-Natal. This is like a celebration of local knowledge.
The city of Durban, a distance of 800 miles to the northeast, has the same provincial vibe. Elephant’s antithesis is Isango Street in Lagos, Nigeria, the most populous city in sub-Saharan Africa. Isango’s edgy commercial center and nightlife are, as tourists love to say, a mirage. Elephants has much more life here.
Aside from its direct neighbor, Zakes, Elephant has an oceanfront tavern for when the winds whip. Nearby Curriespace mall has a bowling alley that could only be in America (Balls). A swimming pool is tucked next to a new theater. The dog park is a five-minute drive away from a strip club on Church street. Even the first season of “Dancing With the Stars” was shot in the area. Then there’s Burger King.
The epitome of this American shopping park is The Farmstore, a 6,200-square-foot juice bar and vegan-friendly market by American Robin Ige. This is how a mom-and-pop shop should be, without commercial success. Ige uses a greener produce supplier, produces tea from 100 percent Ethiopian maple syrup, and uses organic packaging. There are no artificial colors, no additives and no artificial preservatives. She plans to open a cafe in the Polo Shopping center next year.
Ige is a tech visionary of sorts and even has her own sneaker label, Crote. To find him, you have to travel to IGEED, a convenient outlet shopping mall in Christchurch, a city that also stands out. There are no shelves, just small bulletin boards at IGEED, where local suppliers sell their products. Ige’s workshop is a colorful, tightly shelved shop with pressed-tin tables and countertops.