They drive sleek cars, dress to kill and spend like there’s no tomorrow. Twelve years after the demise of apartheid, the children of South Africa’s revolution have found a way to celebrate freedom: shopping.
In ways unimaginable to their grandparents, a generation of black upwardly mobile professionals, dubbed ‘buppies’, is splashing out in a display of power and wealth that is driving a consumer boom. From Cape Town to Johannesburg, retailers report record sales in property, fashion, jewellery and luxury vehicles, a giddy exuberance amid the economy’s sixth successive year of growth.
Business confidence is at its highest in more than two decades, the rand has surged, consumers are borrowing at historically low interest rates and growth this year may exceed 6 per cent. It is a world away from the images of starving Africans that routinely fill western television screens. If South Africa’s new middle class is hungry it is for more success, more money, more everything. Beneficiaries of improved education, they are forming their own businesses and snapping up jobs in state and private sectors that are encouraged to hire from ‘previously disadvantaged’ groups.
‘When I bought my last BMW it was a 318ti model and I was 23,’ said KB Motsilanyane, a musician and businesswoman who is also South Africa’s Face of Charlie, one of Revlon’s line of cosmetics. ‘But now I am 25 and my car must grow with me.’ Last week Ms Motsilanyane upgraded to a £30,000 black 320d BMW. ‘It says that I am independent, a coming businesswoman, very ambitious, very determined.’
She bought the car at Joburg City Auto, the city’s first wholly black-owned BMW dealership and a mecca for those who grew up in townships which said BMW stood for Black Man’s Wish. ‘Ninety-nine per cent of our clients are black,’ said salesman Kennedy Mbiko. ‘There is a huge amount of pride and aspiration among the guys coming here. Brand personality has taken hold and people want to be seen driving these cars.’
Thanks to a leap in black demand, more than 565,000 cars were sold last year, up 26 per cent from 2004, according to the National Automobile Association of South Africa. President Thabo Mbeki caught the mood in his annual state of the nation address on Friday, declaring that South Africa had ‘entered its age of hope’.
A survey published last week, based on interviews with 3,500 people, found that two-thirds of the population was upbeat, with 70 per cent of blacks saying the country was going in the right direction, followed by 50 per cent of coloureds (those of mixed race), 45 per cent of whites and 43 per cent of Indians.
South Africa’s successful bid to the host the 2010 football World Cup unleashed euphoria and a sense that this was indeed a serious country. Companies routinely declare themselves to be ‘proudly South African’.
It is a remarkable turnaround. When Nelson Mandela was inaugurated President in 1994, South Africa was insolvent and teetering on the brink of civil war. If young blacks appeared on television they were usually chanting and wielding weapons.
Now screens are filled with Zulu and Xhosa-speaking soap operas, talent contests and adverts for luxury commodities. Readers of the consumer magazine What, Where & When in the Zulu Kingdom are directed to art galleries, grand prix rallies and jewellery shops.
Headlines from the most recent issue of Good Taste, an in-flight magazine with Nationwide Airlines, include: How to be a sushi master, Best wine tales, Your January brandy selection.
Black customers are spending noticeably more on grooming and accessories, said Annette Longwani, 33, a hairdresser. ‘You see the jewellery getting heavier.’ Ethel Molale, 40, a businesswoman lunching on lamb shank at Moyo, a trendy restaurant at Johannesburg’s Zoo Lake, was only half in jest when asked about conspicuous consumption.
‘The mall is where we pay our tithes and make our offerings. It’s a religious experience. When we go inside we say don’t disturb me, I’m meditating, just give me a credit card.’
But many—far too many, everyone agrees—pray for real because they have no job, no decent home, no electricity, no clean water and little or no hope. They are the poorest of the poor, an army of millions struggling to survive in dusty townships and villages.
In the past decade the government has built 1.8 million low-cost houses and provided basic services to millions who were neglected under apartheid. But the ranks of the poorest have continued to swell and unemployment has stubbornly stayed at 38 per cent, trapping an underclass in what is referred to as the ‘second economy’, a ghost in official statistics, based on subsistence agriculture, hawking, begging and crime.
By restricting building permits and the movement of people, apartheid’s architects and urban planners concealed the poor. You could drive the Garden Route and barely notice the misery that was tucked into valleys beyond the well-paved motorway.
No longer. Thousands of pitiful tin and wooden shacks have sprouted like weeds, sometimes into the heart of plush suburbs, a juxtaposition of inequality as brutal as anything in Brazil or India.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s warning that poverty was a ‘powder keg’ seemed borne out in the past 12 months when riots flared across the country in protest at lack of basic services. In scenes reminiscent of the apartheid era, township dwellers fought pitched battles with police and demanded that the African National Congress do better.
In an effort to defuse the rage, the rattled ruling party has purged most of its councillors in the run-up to next month’s municipal elections and in its manifesto promised a ‘plan to make local government work better’. That prompted scorn from Tony Leon, leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance. ‘A plan? Twelve years in power, and all you can offer us is a plan.’
In Friday’s address to parliament—which glossed over the HIV/Aids pandemic—President Mbeki said the government, in partnership with the private sector, would invest £34bn in public infrastructure projects and creating jobs over the next three years .
In an email interview with The Observer on the eve of the state of the nation speech, Tutu said that not enough had been done to tackle poverty. ‘Everybody should be concerned. Our stability depends on the reasonable needs of most citizens being met or we have [had] it.’
The Nobel laureate said that almost everyone had been amazed at the extraordinary resilience of the impoverished. ‘Their patience is heroic. President Mbeki has himself said it is quite crucial that their needs be met and has made service delivery a key issue for these elections.’
For buppies, the question is whether their spending spree can continue. The Congress of South African Trade Unions has blamed the consumer boom for distorting the economy and pricing the poor out of the property market. Some others complain that it is immoral, or at least bad taste, to flaunt wealth.
‘Black people are more careless than whites with their spending. They don’t know how to do it well,’ said Regina Kazhila, 41, a black boutique owner at Johannesburg’s Rosebank mall.
Specifying that her own clients were discerning and mature, Ms Kazhila said many young, affluent blacks were obsessed with brand names and oneupmanship. ‘They are very competitive with each other. Advertisers have noticed. That’s why they’re targeting them.’
Thapelo Moloi, 29, a pastor, said it was understandable that blacks, having been oppressed for so long, would want to enjoy and exhibit their success. ‘But there is a lack of wisdom in the way some are spending their money.’
Banks are reluctant to disclose figures but there is anecdotal evidence that many buppies are living beyond their means, racking up debts and failing to pay off credit cards.
‘Lately I can’t even bring myself to open the credit card bills,’ said one executive, who declined to be named.
But Loyiso ‘Chippa’ Mangena, 23, a TV actor and businessman, said being flash could also be a form of investment. ‘Money is power. When you walk into a room to make a business proposal for 150m rand you must look like you can handle 150m rand. People can judge you on what car you drive before you even open your mouth.’ Hence Mr Mangena’s pilgrimage to Joburg City Auto to trade in his BMW M3 series for a Z Coupe. ‘I’m going to be one of the first people in the country to get it.’
He made no apology for his plan to buy a yacht. ‘The world is an unfair place. It would be great if we could redistribute all resources but we can’t.
‘I want to inspire young black people that it is possible to leave the township and be anything in the world that they want to be.’
The new South Africa
· There are more than four million cars on the roads, 11 million radios, eight million televisions and about 17 million mobile phones.
· The population is 44.3 million. Just over 75 per cent of the people are black; around 13.5 per cent white; 13.5 per cent mixed race and 2.6 per cent Indian.
· Nearly half of South African homes have telephones.
· Less than 10 percent of people are internet users.
· Most homes have electricity (71 per cent, according to official 2001 figures) and the government has pledged to wire up every household by 2012.
· ‘Adequate’ sanitation has been extended to almost all urban areas (86 per cent, according to the latestofficial figures in 2002), but to less than half of rural homes.
· The average life expectancy is 49 for men and 48 for women.
· One in 10 of South Africans over the age of two is HIV-positive, according to the World Health Organisation.