The great Benz bamboozle

“Yes, but is it a 16-valve?” Back in the day, as a pimply and anguished girl in convent school, this phrase taught me all there was to know about whether a guy stood a chance. Until I was initiated into the inner sanctum, I thought my mates were all dating plumbers.

The question, in fact, refers to that holy grail of black manhood without which he will never land the girl.
His wheels.

In the case of the garden-variety coloured boys found in my area it was his Golf GTI, with dropped suspension, flashy “mags” and booming sound through which to pipe some Mariah Carey. One could even tolerate some dangly toy dice around the mirror, especially if he was half-Indian. But it had to be a 16-valve.

But, alas, gone are the days when a Volkswagen Golf was the measure of successful black manhood. These days it’s about the razzle dazzle: the higher your station in society, the pricier the wheels.

As a quick drive around Hyde Park will confirm, there don’t seem to be many white people zipping around Johannesburg in Hummers lately. Maybe, being formerly advantaged and all, they’re hiding the loot under the mattress for a rainy day. But chances are, give a white man some money and it’s gone into shares, property, investments and retirement annuities. “They” were, as we know, taught from an early age how to look after money.

See one of “us” come into some money and we’re off to the luxury car dealer. So who cares if you’ll be paying it off for the next 10 years; there’s the car wash on Saturday in ekasi to look forward to, right?

Far be it from me to begrudge the hard-working nouveau riche their spanking new rides, but this constant need to look like 50 Cent if you’re black and wealthy plays into all manner of unfortunate stereotypes.

But—and it’s high time somebody said it—this is a stereotype partly grounded in fact. Even the controversial bestseller, Capitalist Nigger, noted how nearly half of all sales of luxury cars such as Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, Saab and Audi were to African-Americans.

Mercedes-Benz, in particular, has had a colourful relationship, not just with our country and some of its high-profile residents (Siphiwe Nyanda and Tony Yengeni spring to mind), but with the continent as a whole.

If he’d done a bit of reading before his car keys arrived in the mail, Transport Minister S’bu Ndebele would have been a little less “shocked” when presented with his million-rand Mercedes-Benz earlier this year. He might have learned that, had he kept it, he would have been joining a long line of African Big Men for whom it is the ride of choice.

Like Robert Mugabe, whose own Mercedes-Benz S600L is reportedly AK-47 proof, has Wi-Fi and, according to journalist Aidan Hartley, has to be followed by a tanker of petrol because it is so heavy on fuel.

There also seems to be a predilection for Mercedes-Benz when it comes to official cars.

A stink was created in Kenya three years ago when the government splashed out $12-million on a state fleet of luxury cars, including Mercs. The amount, the BBC wrote at the time, would have been “enough to send 25 000 children to school for eight years”.

The worst thing may be that now women, previously thought of as being far too sensible for that, are also doing a stiletto hop on to the same bandwagon.

Just look at the former Gauteng agriculture MEC, Nomantu Nkomo-Ralehoko. As the scandal over her “stolen” Merc deepened, the chastised politician was at pains to apologise to the public. Not for the reportedly R920 000 of taxpayers’ money used to ferry her around, but for allowing her husband to take the car home uninsured.

And here we were thinking she was a mere mealie counter.

The government should think seriously about whether car allowances that permit such purchases tally with its commitment to clean governance. It should take a leaf out of the book of former Burkina Faso leader Thomas Sankara who, when he assumed power, sold off the entire fleet of Mercs and forced ministers to drive Renault C5s on official business.

One somehow thinks there would be less incentive for corruption if one were offered a Toyota Tazz.

Tigers don’t proclaim their tigritude, the saying goes, they pounce, but in many parts of South Africa today, Gauteng in particular, there seems to be a need to proclaim one’s negritude through the purchase of a ridiculously overpriced car. “I’m black, I’ve arrived—and here’s the proof.”

Perhaps its true; that instead of critical thinking faculties, “we” got what Henry Louis Gates Jnr notoriously labelled “an extra basketball gene…”

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