/ 10 December 2008

Styled to shine

The term “black diamond” in South Africa has traditionally been attached to ultra-rich conspicuous consumers. But nowadays many are “diamonds in the rough” — ordinary people who have fought their way into the black middle classes through hard work and discipline.

In the past, the typical female black diamond would walk into Stoned Cherry in Rosebank and swipe for a dress without looking at the price tag, or buy an Ed Hardy T-shirt for R1 000 without turning a hair.

The new diamond has style and taste, but appears less bling-obsessed and more financially prudent. She saves to buy Louis Vuitton luggage for her summer holiday or pays it off over 12 months, ensuring it is catered for in her budget.

The diamond of 2008 is less likely to be an empowerment beneficiary or the wife or girlfriend of an empowerment tycoon and more likely to have built a successful career as an entrepreneur, academic or corporate heavy-hitter. And she may be more of an individualist and less imitative of affluent whites.

A survey published in October by the market research company TNS indicates that there has been a significant drop in the migration of black middle-class households to the formerly white suburbs.

She could come from households in Pimville, Protea and Diepkloof in Soweto, which generally fall into Living Standard Measure six and seven. These tend to have more than one income and own a television set, while all family members own cellphones.

The Mail & Guardian made contact with three women who exemplify the trend.

Connie Motshumi
Connie Motshumi, director of Business Leadership, was born and raised in Alexandra township and now lives near Sandton. Twenty years ago, she was the only black matriculant in a predominantly white convent.

In Alexandra, Motshumi says, her parents taught her the value of money. “I was brought up to respect money and to save, and that’s how I live. I live on a budget like everyone else because that is the only way I can manage my finances.”

She greets us with a smile as we enter her offices in Parktown and leads us to the boardroom.

But she is unsettled by the suggestion that she is a black diamond, quickly objecting: “I was very shocked to hear that I am one because I carry a Gucci bag.”

She expresses extreme distaste for conspicuous spenders. “I buy anything that I like: it doesn’t all have to come with a designer label. If I like a bag worth R12 000, I pay it off monthly. That to me is affording it. I really don’t believe in ridiculous spending.”

Motshumi’s job involves frequent travel, leaving limited time for her to spend with her family. “I have to really juggle my personal and professional life. I have a son whom I promised I wouldn’t talk about because men — black diamonds or not — don’t talk about their families in the media, and that’s a trick I’ve learned.”

Boitumelo Tshawe
Boitumelo Tshawe, manager of an IT school in Randburg, believes a supportive spouse is vital to success.

“My husband and I are a great team. I don’t think I could do half the things I’m able to do if he wasn’t there,” said the 36-year-old. “We do everything together, from managing the finances to cooking and cleaning.”

Tshawe is one of the new black diamonds who feels no compulsion to move to white suburbia. She lives in Pimville, Soweto. “It’s not about living in the suburbs. For the sake of convenience, I think it would be easier to live near work, but I’m quite happy living in Soweto.”

Living in a township does not mean stinting on comfort or style. Tshawe’s home, she points out, is quite suited to her family of four. “It has two bedrooms, a kitchen, a spacious lounge and a bathroom. We have a backyard cottage with two rooms and a garage.”

Miranda Puza
At 29, Miranda Puza of Midrand is a market retail specialist who is already on a leadership training course at her Johannesburg company. She shuns the idea of marriage because of her career ambitions and concedes that men find her intimidating.

“I think the more you move up the corporate ladder as a young black woman, the harder it gets to find a man, if you don’t already have one,” she said. “I’d love to get married but only to someone who understands my lifestyle, because I won’t compromise.”

She sees strong advantages to her single status. “I’m used to doing things myself. I live alone and I’ve no problems with it. When I want to cook I do it, and when I don’t want to, I don’t. There’s no pressure.” Perhaps because success has not fallen into her lap, Puza retains a sense of responsibility to other black South Africans who are on the way up and wants to expand the class of which she is now a member.

“It’s all very well being called a black diamond, because black diamonds are rare. But I would like the country to get to the point where having a powerful black middle class doesn’t make news headlines,” she said.