In S. Africa, ritzy shopping mall finds lighter side to sanctions

``The idea,'' says the mastermind of South Africa's first known January Sanctions Sale, ``was to show the lighter side of economic sanctions.'' If so, the extravaganza at the country's most exclusive shopping center has proven a big success. Despite trade restrictions imposed by a number of nations in the past several months and despite even a local recession that predates those sanctions, cash registers at the Mall of Rosebank jingle as energetically as ever.

The annual January sale was renamed simply to attract buyers. Merchants have put most everything on sale - whether it is related to sanctions or not.

At least a few shopkeepers think the air of celebration may be premature, however. Sanctions, they say, are sure to exact some costs in the longer term.

Import prices may go up, since it costs money to find alternative suppliers or to import nominally prohibited goods through third countries. Workers in export industries - including black workers - are likely to lose jobs. ``Sanctions will hurt all South Africans,'' says one of the mall's shopowners.

But not in Rosebank - not yet. For one thing, explains another shopowner, high-tech hobby specialist Dennis Sampson, the international sanctions have not, so far, targeted his merchandise and a wide range of other consumer luxuries. And even potentially imperiled items - brand-name clothing or footwear - are increasingly made in Taiwan, South Korea, and other Asian countries that show no signs of imposing sanctions on anybody.

If sanctions do bite, they will bite in the Mall of Rosebank last of all. Rosebank is the shopping ground of those at the very top of South Africa's wealth pyramid. Those at the bottom, almost all of them black, do not shop here. Nor do many of the South Africans, white and black, who made their way up the economic scale in the boom years of the late 1970s.

``Our main clientele,'' explains Vaughan Pankhurst, the mall's public-relations expert, ``is established money.''

Recession, and perhaps sanctions, have cut into the numbers of shoppers coming to the mall in the past year, Mr. Pankhurst notes. But overall sales figures are actually on the increase.

``When people first started talking about the sanctions and their effects, everything was doom, gloom, and disaster,'' he remarks. ``So we figured: Why not take the disaster out of sanctions?''

Whether that will succeed in the longer term, Rosebank shopkeepers figure, will depend on specific products involved. No matter what the product in demand is, few retailers seem to doubt that importers will manage to find alternative suppliers. The question is how difficult or costly that process will prove to be.

Hobby specialist Sampson reckons his business and prices will pretty much survive. Yet a few shops down, the mood is less cheerful. There, records and tapes are on offer - and the best sellers aren't South Korean or Taiwanese.

``The new [Bruce] Springsteen live album is selling amazingly,'' says the owner. Equally hot is a largely local product featuring black South African musicians that is, however, made in the US: Paul Simon's ``Graceland.''

This report was written in conformity with South Africa's press restrictions.

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