SA's middle class -- young, black and driving a BMW

In townships they call it Black Man’s Wish, the make of car whose initials translate into gleaming, incontrovertible proof that you have made it. To buy a BMW is to say your Soweto days are probably over.

So there was a sense of ceremony at Johannesburg City Auto when Nomsa Philiso was handed the keys to her first BMW, a 320i series.

Ms Philiso (35) stroked the dashboard, eased deep into the leather upholstery and flicked the ignition. “It feels good.
It feels right,” she said. “But I’m still your typical black single mum—who is now driving a BMW.” She then flung her head back and laughed at the joke.

As South Africa prepares to vote tomorrow in the third election since apartheid’s fall a decade ago there is a new generation of ambitious, wealthy black people transforming the country.

As fast as they are moving into senior positions in banks, multinationals and state-owned firms they are moving out of townships and into the once white-only suburbs of lawn sprinklers and pool filters.

Philiso, a financial manager at the public broadcaster SABC, swapped Soweto for a suburb called Florida and was now swapping her VW Golf for a R267 720 BMW. Close friends were also thriving, she said. “We were chatting and drinking whiskey last night when at one point we looked at each other and said, ‘we’ve done really well.’”

When the ANC won power in 1994 it resolved to carve a black middle class from a society which awarded privilege to the white minority at the expense of the black majority who often lacked clean water and electricity—a dangerous imbalance which risked dissolving the rainbow nation.

A decade later, according to the department of trade and industry, black people have moved from zero to 10% of company ownership and occupy 15% of skilled positions. The richest black people’s incomes have risen 30% and you see them spending it in air-conditioned shopping malls and pricey restaurants.

Their good fortune is credited with draining tension from black aspirations and underpinning a political stability on the back of which the ANC is expected to sweep back to power. And if there is a shrine for the new elite it is Johannesburg City Auto.

The first wholly black-owned BMW dealership, it opened last year in the downtown district which used to be apartheid’s capitalist citadel. Its top-range models, replete with DVD player and laptop portals, go for R1 045 000.

Philiso was briefed about her purchase by Lindi Dlamini (27) who was also born in Soweto, obtained a college diploma and moved to Florida. As South Africa’s first black woman racing car driver Dlamini was poached by BMW to join its sales team.

“Before there was a perception that black people were just thugs, or maids, but now they’re working really hard to be able to buy these cars,” said Dlamini.

“A BMW says you’ve made it and young people look up to you for that.”

But critics find two big problems in this rosy picture of black advancement. The new elite are a facade for whites to retain economic control, they say, and far too many black people remain mired in desperate poverty without hope of work.

Despite the government’s Black Economic Empowerment scheme, which encourages companies to cede controlling stakes to black firms, fewer than 30 of 450 organisations listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange had significant black ownership, according to the BusinessMap Foundation, a research body.

White males still dominate the boardroom but in so-called “cappuccino” deals black people are sprinkled into visible but powerless positions.

The exceptions are a handful of mega-rich tycoons with ANC links, such as Tokyo Sexwale and Cyril Ramaphosa, who have become players in mining and communications.

“Black Economic Empowerment was an initiative of big corporations to gain allies in the new political class,” said Moeletsi Mbeki, a businessman and critic of BEE, despite being President Thabo Mbeki’s brother. “It is the transfer of assets to certain individuals with connections.”

The other criticism is that creating a new black bourgeoisie still leaves a third of black people—some estimate the real figure is double that—without the jobs, skills and opportunities to escape poverty. Economists compare the economy to a double-decker bus going forward but with no stairs for those sat on the bottom.

A government commission found South Africa rivalled Brazil for one of the most unequal distributions of income in the world, prompting dire warnings from commentators such as Sampie Terreblanche, who fear a new class struggle. “Things can’t go on like this,” he said.

But hope springs in unexpected places. In Johannesburg’s Alexandra township, where 400 000 souls share one square mile of shacks, a group of men discussed a plan over beer and sausages. A funeral society they set up three years ago to offset members’ burial costs had turned penny contributions into a R2 720 nest-egg.

Why not use it to establish a small business to buy chairs, tables and a tent to rent out to wakes, generating steady income? “We think it can work. We’ve realised we need to help ourselves,” said Zakhe Zondo (36). But Zondo confessed an ambivalence towards black people driving BMWs. “On one level it’s envy. But then you think that it’s also progress. Opportunities are there.” - Guardian Unlimited Â

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