The grand opening of McDonald's first fast-food restaurant in South Africa heralds bad news for the health of the nation.

Suzanne Leclerc-Madlala


The camera zooms in on a young African couple emerging from a church. Newly married, neatly permed and wearing the very latest in expensive Western wedding garb, they head for the groom's sleek sports car under a hail of rice. Out onto the highway and off they go, alone at last. As they glance lovingly at each other they catch a glimpse of the Golden Arches in their rear-view mirror. The honeymoon can wait! McDonald's beckons!

Amid the smiles of the restaurant's mainly white clientele our bride and groom make their grand entrance. They place their orders with a pair of bubbly, eager white girls behind the counter, then settle down at a small table to bite into what their faces tell us could only be sheer ecstasy in a bun. Before they take that second bite a small, white child bounces to their table and presents them with a flower. Our couple is overwhelmed. Could the new South Africa be more perfect? The image disappears from our TV screens, and a manly voice reads the solemn words below: "McDonald's - we're here to share your life."

For better or for worse, McDonald's has arrived in South Africa. The hype surrounding the grand opening of their Johannesburg store came complete with balloons, TV and radio personalities, flyers, musical bands and a throng of people who just came to see what all the excitement was about. Ample newspaper coverage was assured by an on-going legal battle between McDonald's the multinational giant and MacDonald's the local fast-food franchise, which took advantage of the sanction years to register a similar name and a yellow-arched logo of it's own.

Opening day at McDonald's was met by an African Church choir singing soulful Christian songs in Xhosa and Zulu. At last the Pearly Gates - or rather the golden-Arches - were about to open. The patient masses, many of whom had camped out on the pavement overnight, began to press forward. As they rushed inside, an inspired master of ceremonies made his final decree through a loudspeaker:

"McDonald's - no country is complete without one."

One could argue that it's time for South Africans to enjoy a bit of fun and games, time for the people to relax with a bit of mindless entertainment and tasteless multinational junk food, after all the years of battle against apartheid's reign of terror. As disillusion begins to set in, with the lack of new job opportunities or any noticeable difference in the material conditions of life for the majority, perhaps an evening with the Cosby Show can provide a glimmer of hope for a better life. Having the "young lions of the revolution" (as youth was called several years ago) mesmerised in front of a TV set in a shack and dreaming of an outing to McDonald's might keep them away from crime, drugs and the gangsterism which has rapidly become a way of life for well-armed, well-trained township youths with nothing better to do.

Before the grand opening a team of high-powered McDonald's consultants flew down here to do their market research. They drew up detailed consumer profiles and assessed their profit potential for the country as a whole. In the end they decided to take advantage of the influx to Johannesburg of people fleeing unemployment in the rural areas, or violence and overcrowding in the established peri-urban townships.

McDonald's Inc see their entry as a way of meeting the demand among this growing urban population for relatively cheap and easily available sustenance. What they seem to have failed to notice is that these new urban settlers, most of whom live from hand to mouth in make-shift cardboard shacks on illegally occupied land, are hardly likely to head for McDonald's. More likely they'll be found scavenging on a "fast-food fix" from the municipal garbage dumps.

But the global king of burgers is not to be deterred. As franchise-consultant partner Bendeta Parker put it: "The process of changing the lower-income market's traditional eating habits from things like sour milk and unprocessed foods to chips, burgers and a milkshake will be costly and timely, but will inevitably yield high returns over the longer term."

No doubt profiteers will make a killing. But who will benefit? The new health ministry is struggling to provide basic health services like clean water, immunisations and trained community healthcare workers to stem the high morbidity and mortality rates, which are on par with other poor African countries. Meanwhile the incidence of diabetes, cancer, heart disease and hypertension is growing at a phenomenal rate, especially among Africans. There's never been much resistance to changing from traditional high-fibre, natural diets to high-fat, over-refined Western eating habits. McDonald's can feel good about that.

In the words of the youth who came to chant on opening day: "Viva McDonald's! Viva Big Mac"

Suzanne Leclerc-Madlala is lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Durban-Westville, Kwazulu Natal, South Africa.

For more information on campaigns world-wide visit the McSpotlight website - http:/www.mcspotlight.org

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