BMW blacks move to the fast lane

As a new middle class rises from the ashes of apartheid, the townships remain stunted by its legacy. Hugh Pope reports from Johannesburg
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The Independent Online
Cruising former white suburbs in BMWs or head-hunted from newly won managerial desks, South Africa's small black middle class is visibly making it big in ways unimaginable a few years ago.

So fast are old white-run companies scanning "on the move" sections of the local press to hire black faces for their affirmative action programmes that Vincent Musewe felt it was time to put critical whites straight about who was to blame.

"Job-hopping is natural. We will have a shortage of black professionals for a decade at least," he wrote to a Johannesburg newspaper. "Black professionals, for once, can choose who they want to work for and at what price and for how long."

White business networks retain most economic control, of course, and black South Africans like Mr Musewe must fight against tokenism. As they race ahead, the new middle class also has to keep a weather eye on those relatives who are still poor. Perhaps 2

0 per cent of black South African society has not even a foot on the economic ladder, nine months after multi-racial elections brought in President Nelson Mandela's government.

So far, black society has been patient, ready to take the slow, hard route out of the townships and squatter camps, accepting the culture of reconciliation fostered by Mr Mandela and his African National Congress.

A black criminal underclass does target white suburbs. But a far bigger invasion has been by dressed-up weekend tourists from the poor outskirts, window-shopping in gleaming malls. And the new black business class is also determined to find some common cause with its old white masters.

"My business is not black or white. We're just looking at credit products," said John More, 41, who was one of South Africa's first black bank managers. "My fellow guys [from Soweto] want money. But they don't have sufficient assets to back what they want to do. And I must see that my business grows."

Township society feels surprisingly little acrimony as the black middle classes have started to move out to white suburbs and send their children to former white schools. "Jealousy is common, but they can't destroy you. Basically everybody was happy whenI moved; they were proud of me," said Mr More.

A new study for the Centre for Policy Studies argues that township expectations were more moderate than was feared by those who foresaw disaster if the new government failed to deliver quickly on its election promises of houses, jobs and services. Poor people still want "to make the system work for them, not bring it down," the report says.

Injustices linger.The reason that the black middle class is so small is that other races have enormous head starts in the capitalist system, through education, training and financial power. The iniquity of all-white rule has been replaced by smaller tyrannies, such as the credit agencies' bad-risk lists.

"If you didn't pay your rent during a rent boycott, you could be on the blacklist and denied credit by the computer," said Mr More. "But if you had paid rent, you might have been killed."

Black people make up 75 per cent of the 40 million population, but Bob Cooper, an African-American consultant who has worked to "empower" black South Africans, said that less than 2 per cent of managers were black and it would take generations to achieveintegration.

Such statistics are behind the ANC's left-wing outlook. "The state has to take the lead," said Max Legodi, chief of the Soweto Chamber of Commerce. "We are still patient, but the patience is not going to last forever. Those of us in leadership positions have to have government achievements to explain to the people."

The government prefers the carrot to the stick. White-led banks, for instance, had to stage a public beauty parade of their affirmative action programmes as part of tenders to win the account of the new Johannesburg-area province, Gauteng.

Bheki Sigiya of the Black Management Forum, an elite black business group, said that instead of aiming to increase the 10 per cent of black society that had made it into the middle classes, efforts should be concentrated on bringing the underclass aboard.

"We are encouraging people to reduce hours in the working week just so that every family has at least one bread-winner," Mr Sigiya said."That is the only way to bring crime down."

Those who have moved out of the townships do feel a stake in bringing the fringes of black society into full citizenship. Even as he preaches the virtues of capitalist endeavour, Mr More says he never forgets his origins.

"In my new suburb I can't go over and ask my neighbour for salt, I can't turn the music up high and sometimes when I sit with my beer in the garden, I feel sort of lonely," said Mr More. "To have fun, I still go back to Soweto."