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Soweto’s iconic Eyethu Theatre revived

The iconic Eyethu Theatre in Mofolo, Soweto, home to one of the first black-owned cinemas in South Africa, has been revitalised and transformed into a contemporary community hub while preserving the local legacy that began in 1969 with the late Ephraim Batana Tshabalala and his family.

The theatre became a cultural and historical landmark; a fixture on the community landscape and a place for locals to come together.

The driving force behind the cinema was entrepreneur Ephraim Tshabalala. Born in 1910 in Vrede in the Free State to farmworkers from Eswatini, Tshabalala worked as a forklift driver on a farm, before heading to Sophiatown where he was employed by a bus service. With his enterprising spirit, he quit his job in 1946 with 20 Pounds in savings and began a meat business, which was a roaring success. Tshabalala went on to build a flourishing retail empire that included garages, bottle stores, fish and chips outlets, supermarkets, and dry-cleaning depots.

The pride of Tshabalala’s empire was the Eyethu Theatre. Eyethu was more than just a cinema; it hosted various community events, and it holds fond memories for many Sowetans.

Sadly, the once-bustling cinema closed in the 1990s with competition from multiplexes and streaming, and the building fell into disrepair. It has since been recognised as a significant heritage, cultural and social site.

The Tshabalala Family have long dreamt of restoring the theatre to its former social relevance for the community. In 2018 the family found a partner that could help them unlock their vision.

Some thirty years after the theatre shut its doors and, as result of a joint venture of the Tshabalala Family with Abland Property Developers, the theatre has finally been reanimated and once again become a thriving hub for the people of Soweto.

The original cinema building has been restored and repurposed into a Heritage Hall that pays tribute to the late Ephraim Tshabalala and the history that is displayed in preserved artworks of the theatre. The Heritage Hall has been incorporated into a new shopping centre, and together they serve as a symbol of the community’s enduring resilience and determination, designed to inspire a new generation of culture and community.

In honour of its iconic local heritage, the developers have respectfully retained the original theatre structure, while tailor-making the new centre to the highest standards, especially for the shoppers from the local community in Mofolo, Soweto.

Extensive efforts ensured that as many people as possible from the immediate community could benefit as part of the 14-month construction project, with many local businesses and workers bringing the two-level, 10 000m2 new shopping centre to life.

Eyethu Shopping Centre features a powerful lineup of anchor tenants comprising Shoprite, OBC Chicken, Ackermans, West Pack, Clicks and bank branches from FNB and Capitec Bank. In addition, it features Tekkie Town, Jam Clothing, Pep Home and Cash Crusaders. Shoppers can also enjoy food from Pedros Chicken, Debonairs Pizza and Fish and Chips while making use of the centre’s outdoor seating, as well as the convenience of the centre’s Chicken Licken Fly Thru.

The community will remain engrained in the ongoing operation of the centre, not only as visitors and customers but also by running the kiosks and small incubation hub retail outlets, as well as being employed by larger retailers.

Conveniently for the community, and friendly for the environment, the centre includes its own solar power and will trade during load shedding. It has taxi laybys for public transport and easily accessible on-grade parking, with special consideration given to safe pedestrian access.

The Eyethu Shopping Centre development is funded by Nedbank. The property is managed by Broll Property Group and marketed by Kitchen Sink.