When the first McDonald’s restaurant opened almost two decades ago in Johannesburg, a teenage boy named Thando Tshabalala was among the thousands who stood in line patiently waiting to try one of those famous burgers. “We had seen this place in every movie we ever watched, and it seemed to be mentioned in every song, so I had to try it for myself,” he said.
Given such enthusiasm, it was hardly surprising that South Africa proved to be fertile territory for the burger chain, breaking expansion records with 30 outlets opening in under two years. Today the company operates more than 200 restaurants across the country. When arch-rival Burger King finally entered the market last year it was greeted with similar excitable scenes – almost 5,000 people descended on its launch branch in Cape Town, some even sleeping on the street to ensure they got their hands on a Whopper. “We did not expect the demand to be so great,” its chairman confessed later.
Tshabalala, now a successful 33-year-old corporate trainer, still enjoys fast food. When we met he was eating a steak sandwich in the food court of a smart shopping mall, sitting among scores of shoppers and families feasting on curries, pizzas, fried fish and the ubiquitous chips. But that skinny teenager has grown into a 5’5” man weighing almost 17 stone – and today he struggles to find clothes to fit his inflated body and complains that seats are becoming too small for comfort.
“To be honest I feel rather self-conscious about my size,” Tshabalala told me with a rueful smile. “There is this saying in South Africa that if you have a one-pack belly, like a beer belly, you must have lots of money, but if you have a six-pack there is something wrong. But I know it is not really a sign of success to have a big belly.”