Not all fun and games for South Africa's 'Black Diamonds'

South Africa

by Mariette le Roux

Agence France-Presse
August 14, 2007

Mzamo Xala disavows the term "Black Diamond" conferred on members of South Africa’s booming black middle class who now hold nearly a third of the country’s buying power.

The expression implies superiority, he protested, which offends the collective-mindedness of his cultural background.

"It doesn’t speak to where we come from in terms of that ‘one for all’," Xala, brand manager for South Africa’s Springbok rugby team, told AFP at his office recently.

"Black Diamonds" are categorised as black South Africans, wealthy or salaried in "suitable" occupations, who earn at least 7,000 rand (just under 1,000 dollars, 730 euros) a month, are well educated and credit-worthy, and own or are acquiring homes, cars and household goods.

Xala has bought the flat he lives in and owns a car. He has moved out of the townships and lives in a largely white-populated Cape Town suburb.

He is single, 29, and childless, and spends about a fifth of his salary on less fortunate family members — some of them still township residents.

His lifestyle is a far cry from how he grew up, "like any normal black kid in a township," after which he studied marketing and business management on a bursary.

A report by the University of Cape Town’s Unilever Institute said the number of "Black Diamonds" has grown by 30 percent in just over a year, to 2.6 million out of a total South African population of about 48 million.

The group is worth about 180 billion rand, representing 28 percent of the total South Africans spend.

Nearly half live in suburbs previously inhabited only by whites, with 12,000 families or 50,000 individuals moving from the townships every month. Seventy percent reside in the financial hub province Gauteng.

Study leader John Simpson said "Black Diamonds" were sustaining the strong growth of the South African economy, which is averaging around five percent annually.

A key finding, he added, was that spending power had increased considerably among people already categorised as "Black Diamonds" since 2005.

"This shows they are climbing the corporate ladder quicker. It is not just about companies employing more people. This is not artificial, it is real," he said.

The growth in numbers was driven partly by the government’s affirmative action policies, which hold companies to strict employment quotas that seek to make the workforce reflect South Africa’s population, made up of 80 percent blacks and 51 percent women.

The "Black Diamonds" comprise civil servants, corporate employees and a "significant number" of entrepreneurs, said Simpson.

The new-found luxury of a middle-class lifestyle is not all fun and games, said Xala. The move from impoverished townships to the suburbs entails a major cultural adjustment for many "Black Diamonds," with less emphasis on a sharing culture and more on material welfare.

"There are big differences between where we have come from and where we are now.

"In the township, it is very exciting. There is a lot of social connection. There is a lot of intermingling with everybody on the street. It is really a nice vibe.

"In suburbs, the culture is very different. It is very much: get into to your house, stay in your house, get out. There is nothing happening on the streets. It is very … structured, I would say.

It is for this reason that Xala often makes a visit on Sundays to Cape Town’s Gugulethu township, one of the country’s oldest black townships that lies about 15 to 20 minutes’ drive outside the city.

"People like to meet and greet even if they don’t know you. I miss the accessibility of that kind of life," he said.

Many among those who have risen to the top, he added, felt a sense of collective guilt that the struggle against white minority domination had not benefited all equally since the end of apartheid 13 years ago.

Despite economic growth, South Africa is still hampered by high unemployment rates — a legacy of the apartheid era — that officially stand at 25 percent and unofficially at around 40 percent.

"The sacrifices were for everyone, yet the fruit of the sacrifices has not transpired to everyone," said Xala.

Copyright © 2007 Agence France-Presse. All rights reserved. The information contained in the AFP News report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of Agence France-Presse.

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