Consumption’s not about race – research

2015-03-04 06:00

When black middle class South Africans buy flashy cars, expensive booze and designer clothes, it has nothing to do with their character and traits as a race group.

This is according to new research by Stellenbosch University, which has debunked previous studies that linked the emerging black middle class’ conspicuous consumption to people’s tastes and characteristics as a group.

But Stellenbosch University’s paper, published in December 2014 by the institution’s Bureau of Economic Research, found the middle class in general – regardless of their race – will indulge in conspicuous consumption at some point in their lives.

Researchers concluded that the emerging black middle class’ conspicuous consumption stems from a genuine need to acquire assets they previously didn’t have, as well as the desire to show their peers: “Look at me – I have arrived.”

Professor Servaas van der Berg, who was involved in the study, told City Press: “It’s not a race thing. It’s natural; it’s human nature to want to show your peers that you have worked hard and made a success out of your life.”

In the paper, researchers said conspicuous consumption would dip as the asset gap was closed and black people’s middle class status was cemented.

“As the emerging black middle class establishes itself and members continue to transition into the established group, it is likely that substantial convergence to a new South African middle class will take place,” researchers found.

But Van der Berg said that in people’s drive to close the asset gap and display their new status, the emerging black middle class had racked up considerable debt.

“Too many people do these things on credit. The understandable desire to buy all these things they don’t have makes people overstretch themselves – and that’s problematic,” he said.

“What it means is that their position in the middle class is under threat. If things go wrong a little bit, as they often do, they lose their middle class status and revert back to the working class group.”

Another serious problem, he said, was that in leading luxurious lifestyles, the emerging middle class would sometimes trade off other things such as personal savings, school funds, life cover and medical aid.

Efficient Group economist Dawie Roodt said most middle class people, especially those from among the previously disadvantaged, spent more than 10% of their take-home income on debt repayment.

“They want instant gratification, but what they are trading off is future consumption. We understand the need to acquire assets, but the reality is they do so by overextending themselves, and that is not good,” he added.

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