Shooting up the ladder

2013-09-29 10:00

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Does being black middle class simply mean driving a BMW and eating at a shisa nyama?

I will never forget when it settled in that there were some really rich black people out there.

While still at university, a boy invited me to his home in Houghton, northern Joburg, for lunch. I think it was to impress me, but all it did was fill me with a deep sense of dread. I could not wait to get out of that house.

He told me they were renovating the kitchen, and I did not understand why they would be fixing a place that looked perfect already.

All I could think was that if this relationship goes anywhere, then I’ll have to invite him to my home and he will realise that we were not the same after all.

It’s not like I came from poor surroundings. My parents would claim working class status, but I believe that they provided us with middle class opportunities, which was a far cry from some of our immediate neighbours.

Anyway, the relationship did not pick up: the boy was moneyed (he had his own car, which then I thought only applied to white people) but he was also not that bright.

In hindsight, I have to also admit that I was intimidated by that kind of wealth. I couldn’t look beyond the house and car.

That day in the early 2000s, I started to grasp the class disparities that were deepening among black people. I wondered where I fit in on this wealth continuum.

Could you choose or aspire to another class or was my sociology lecturer right, that “working class parents produce working class kids”?

I remembered all this two weeks ago while sitting in a discussion about the black middle class chaired by two Wits University academics.

For a long time, we discussed and debated definitions of what it actually means to be black middle class, and why “black middle class” and not simply

“middle class”?

We could not all agree on the elements that should be used to define one as black middle class. Should education, not income, be a key defining factor?

What’s always struck me is how the definition has centred on the consumption habits of this subset. The many articles about black people at shisa nyamas has formed an image of what the black middle class does and is.

A newspaper article that opens with “she was gesturing to a waiter with a manicured French-tip fingernail” is code for a black person with money. I think this has been due to the fact that market research is what has driven the statistics on this subset.

So a lazy tone and style has developed in media writing that simply focuses on the black middle class as spenders and consumers. It carries with it, for me at least, an implicit suggestion that these are people who have only surface-level interests.

Not enough is said about their dreams for the future or investment in their children. This year, there was a slight sway in the narrative: the fact that the black middle class (I would say black people in general) invests heavily in education, means that they see it as a stepping stone to a better life for their children.

I hope there will be more stories such as these, like the underappreciated fact that many black people who have “made it” don’t make it alone.

They support whoever is left behind. Like my cousin, for whom financial success meant building a house for her mother and sending a cousin to school.

Many black professionals buy their parents a car to make life at home easier for them, not the other way round.

Let’s hear some stories about how humble beginnings drive entrepreneurial spirit, like Julia Harmel’s. She owns the venue at which the black middle class discussion was held. She bought the building this year that houses her 220?Princes Lounge, as well as the offices of her events and catering company.

She started this business with nothing while living at home in Khayelitsha, Western Cape.

An economic understanding of the black middle class is important – they are, after all, drivers of the economy.

But I think a deeper understanding of any middle class could also form a road map for how South Africans envision a path into better opportunities.

It’s an opportunity to define our own type of middle class that’s based not on the ideas of philosophers like Karl Marx, but on the values that define many South Africans today, which is not always a piece of boerewors at a shisa nyama and a BMW.

A businessman who did not want to be named parked his Lamborghini Diablo at the popular Mahungra car wash and shisa nyama in Mangaung, Free State. The author believes that in order to effectively define our society, we need to start looking beyond money and cars. Picture: Conrad Bornman/Foto24

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