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Perks & Pitfalls: The New Black Middle Class
Thebe Ikalafeng, Ebony Magazine, January 1996

Five years ago when Walter Skosana and his wife Maserame decided to move to an up market neighbourhood in Midrand just 50 kilometers from their middle-class township home in Kagiso, Krugersdorp they first had to get permission from their prospective White neighbours. ?Fortunately they accepted us as suitable neighbours,? says Walter.

In 1994, following South Africa?s first democratic elections and just before the inauguration of Nelson Mandela, the Skosanas moved into their new home not far from their old one. ?This time we didn?t need permission from our White neighbours,? says Walter, ?because the only colour that mattered was that of our money.?

The Skosanas and many other Black middle-class families are showing White South Africans that there are many successful Blacks who can afford a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle. Because most White South Africans have never visited a Black township, they never knew that even during the days of apartheid, in the shadows of their plush segregated neighbourhoods a Black middle class emerged despite the repressive political and economic system of the old South Africa.

With a beautiful spacious house with modern d?cor, complete with a swimming pool, an indoor Jacuzzi and three cars, including the latest model Mercedes Benz, Walter, a human resources director at Abbott Laboratories, and Maserame, an African language teacher at St. Ansgar?s school, and their two children fit the middle-class world.

The Skosanas are typical of a young vibrant and on-the-go social phenomenon fueled with new interests and orientations and a bumper crop of MBA?s MBBCH?s, Ph.D?s, high-tech managers and entrepreneurs who have been growing silently in the crevices of the new world of Black and White South Africa.

But behind the aura of success, the Black middle class in the new South Africa finds itself in a quagmire, wrestling with a value system that offers all the perks and material trappings one can afford but also threatens traditional African family values and cultures. The challenge, some experts say, is to find a comfortable balance. ?The tendency in South Africa historically has always been to assume that all Whites were wealthy and privileged, and all Blacks are poor and underprivileged,? says Dr. Zwelakhe Tshandu, a sociology lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand. ?We have always had wealthy Blacks in the townships. But their upward mobility was always restricted. With apartheid barriers gone, and opportunities for those Blacks who can afford to move is easier, and certainly now more visible.?

Another issue facing the academics who research this middle-class phenomenon is that not everybody who has the status and standing in the community lives an upmarket lifestyle. Most of these people, who include teachers, social workers, and some white-collar employees, do not possess the material symbols that are generally associated with the middle class.

Scara Thindwa, a former Kaizer Chiefs soccer club star, lives a modest unassuming lifestyle in an apartment in Pretoria with his wife and young son. ?To me middle class simply means to be able to live beyond the meal line, make choices about where to live, what to buy, and to be able to send your children to good schools,? says Scara, an assistant coach with the Wits University soccer club and consultant at Liberty Life Insurance Company. ?My father passed away when I was 18. He didn?t leave us with any savings, so I had to become the breadwinner at home and educate my brothers and sisters. Right now, Jo?Ann and I are saving to be able to move to a better place and for Alexander?s education.?

Saving would be a luxury for Merle Abrahams, who has been a high school literature teacher in Cape Town for 11 years. By profession, she is middle class. However, this divorced mother of three daughters struggles to provide her family on R1, 800 per month. ?It is only because of my profession that I believe I am middle class,? says Abrahams. ?The problem that I have with [the term] is the responsibility and implication in the sense that you constantly need to be aspiring to acquire material things. Being middle class is both a curse and nightmare in the context of the material value associated with it. My basic simple pleasures are my books and my jazz music.?

Abraham?s dismal salary strikes at the heart of a brewing dispute between teachers, nurses and other government workers who feel that though they are educated middle-class professionals, they are not adequately compensated. As the recent nurses? strike demonstrated, the pressure on the government to raise the salary level of civil servants will grow.

Recent studies show, however, that members of the upper echelon of the Black middle class are getting a larger share of the better jobs, earning an increasing share of the nation?s income and are accumulating wealth at an accelerated rate.

?Not long ago, Blacks accounted for less than 10 percent of the country?s purchasing power,? says Kopano Ratele, a researcher at the Human Sciences research Council. ?Today, estimates are that Blacks account for more than 50 percent of the country?s purchasing power. By the turn of the century, Blacks will account for more than 75 percent of the country?s purchasing power.?

And that?s no small change, considering Blacks account for 75 percent of the country?s population. With opportunities opening up every day for Blacks, the emerging Black middle class is moving its rands to the cleaner, well-maintained and spacious White suburbs, and acquiring significant financial assets.

However, not all Blacks have packed up their belongings and moved to the suburbs. Some Black middle-class families have resisted the exodus to White suburbs, opting instead to stay home in the townships and rise their families among their friends and close relatives.

Sizwe and Judy Nxasana speak with a passion when they explain their decision to remain in Umlazi, south of Durban, the third-largest township in South Africa after Soweto and Mdantsane in the Eastern Cape. ?We still live in the township because we believe deeply about this community?, says Sizwe, who owns an accounting firm. ?My wife?s medical practice is here in the township. We also run a small business here ? a bakery ? that?s providing jobs here. We are not willing to throw our investments away. We believe that it is important to be visible role models in the community. People see us in a positive light. Hopefully there will be positive spin-offs and others will aspire to get their education, become professionals and entrepreneurs.?

Judy echoes her husband?s sentiments even though she was robbed of her car several months ago by four youths who accosted her as she left her clinic.

?That [carjacking] exposed me as a target because some people feel you owe them something,? says Judy, who opened her clinic in 1987. ?But we still stay here despite the incident. A lot of the Black middle class has left the townships, but we feel strong about being a part of our community. Our bakery is a small business that generates few profits for us because we reinvest it back in the community. Moreover, it?s the cheapest, and the best bread around.?

Sophie Kupane, a successful businesswoman, wife and mother of two adult children, and her family still have strong community ties to the townships, even though they moved to the suburbs many years ago before it was fashionable to do so. She owns and manages a shoe boutique in trendy Hyde Park Corner in Hyde Park, Johannesburg.

?We still own a house in Soweto, and my husband?s businesses are in the townships,? she says. ?Fore a long time, I single-handedly ran a clothing boutique business in Mmabatho, which was located right among my people. Even now, if I have time off, I help my husband in his business in the township. Most of my relatives still live in Soweto, and on Sundays we attend a Black mission church. Our church is very much community oriented, and I am involved in church projects that reach out to the poor in the city. So I am always working with and in touch with the needy.?

Because many Black families who move to White suburbs are sometimes accused of ?assimilating to the White culture,? they often find themselves having to defend their lifestyles.

Malusi Makhathini, a 26-year-old bachelor and first-generation suburbanite, offers no apologies for his lifestyle. He owns a house with a swimming pool and a three-series BMW in upmarket, predominantly White Buccleugh, a suburb north of Johannesburg. ?I worked hard to get to where I am,? says Malusi, a branch manager at Nedcor permanent Bank and currently studying for an MBA degree. ?I didn?t grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth. My parents, who still live in the township, were not middle class by any stretch of the imagination. I grew up barefoot, attended a public school and I paid my own way through tertiary school. I believe I have earned the right to choose where I want to live.?

Some Black middle-class families seem to be involved in a cultural tug-of-war between their Black culture and White culture, regardless of whether they have moved to the suburbs or stayed in the townships.

"There has been a shift in the value system from generation to generation," says Thuli Bottoman, a manager and counselor at Family Life Centre in Johannesburg. "This value shift has seen a move from the traditional African extended family to the nuclear family phenomenon which is common in Western culture. And the Black middle class, having adopted Western culture, is at odds with traditional African culture. These dynamics can lead to conflict in a family between the young Western-influenced children and their parents."

Nowhere are the distinct differences of White culture from Black culture more visible than between children and their parents. "Children in middle-class households are brought up quite differently from other children," says Thuli. "Parents, coming from the old school, need to have a mind shift to accommodate these children. Expectations are different from both parties " the children and the parents."

But all is not lost in the Black middle-class fight to retain their African culture. "We as a people must be aware of the changes taking place around us, and prepare ourselves emotionally for those changes," advises Thuli. "Parents need to understand that children today are different. And children need to understand where their parents are coming from."

Dr. Tshandu warns that blind assimilation to White culture can lead to the decay of African culture. "Assimilation into White middle-class culture is a serious threat to African values such as the communalism culture of ubuntu," he says. "And if shedding our values is the price we have to pay for success, than we have a serious problem."

Although many Black middle-class people are relishing the success of the new South Africa, many agree that future generations will be the beneficiaries of the efforts of this generation. "We aren't there yet," offers Walter Skosana. "But we are making inroads into the standard of living of which we have been deprived. We must show our individual discretion and live within our means."

Walter's wife, Maserame, adds: "We, the current generation, are the pioneers. We are breaking barriers and dispelling stereotypes. Our children will enjoy the fruit of our efforts long after we're gone."