Every day I thank God that I had parents with oodles of style, but little pretension. We had no wealth, little income and no branded goods.But we did have books and drives, and good food, and the occasional holiday to Durban. It was enough.
The post-apartheid years have been good to some of us, enabling a social mobility impossible for the generation of my parents, who were constrained by apartheid’s various lockdowns – from unequal education to job reservation and group areas.
Over the past 16 years, this mobility has resulted in a new black middle class. An accompanying trend that cleaves to this positive development like sticky rice to raw salmon has been conspicuous consumption, symbolised this year by the sushi king Kenny Kunene, whose million-rand 40th birthday bash has catalysed a debate on whether this showy wealth is a good or bad thing
For Kunene, ANC Youth League president Julius Malema and a generation of successful young black entrepreneurs, this show of wealth is good because it provides a pivot point of aspiration for the next generation.
But take a look at these two photographs.
In the top one, the queen of consumption, Khanyi Mbau, sets up a cameo of Kunene’s party that had happened two weeks before. This time, the roles are reversed. She eats sushi off a muscled young model to thumb her nose at those who complained that the original image of the model having sushi nibbled from her belly by the middle-aged Kunene was exploitative.
Her get-up – that pink nighty and her arse in the air – is a perfect 21st-century pastiche of an elite cossetted in an air bubble of unbelievable wealth with an underclass, its nose pressed up against the bubble, most of whose individual members will not amass a million bucks in their entire lives.
The bottom photograph was shot in the same week, in Kya Sands. Kya Sands is about 20 minutes from ZAR, the sushi club, yet a world away in experience.
You can find a Kya Sands almost every week though government says the pace of delivery protests has slowed as municipal government has become more efficient.
In a country where ZAR and Kya Sands co-exist, in almost entirely parallel universes, it surely requires a discernment of what is enough. A society of conspicuous consumption, and a country divided into an elite and an underclass, is not one envisaged in our constitution.
There is a brilliant reading that is part of the Africa Leadership Initiative set of seminars geared towards teaching a generation of public, private and civil society leaders to play a role other than that of simply being large-scale consumers.
The story by Leo Tolstoy is called “How much land does a man need?” It tells the story of Pakhom, a peasant and small landowner down on his luck who hears about the Bashkirs who are selling land dirt-cheap.
He travels to their lands and is welcomed and told the terms of the deal: for one thousand roubles a day, Pakhom can buy as much land as he walks in a day. The proviso is that he must return to the start point by sunset. Pakhom starts with a plan and knows that at midday he should start back to make the cut-off, but he wants a mile more and then some more and in his rush to get back before sunset, he dies from exhaustion.
The parable against greed and for the discernment of a personal appreciation of enough ends thus: “Pakhom’s workman picked up the spade, dug a grave for his master – six feet from head to heel, which was exactly the right length – and buried him.”
In the end, all the land we need is a grave. We don’t take the sushi with us or the bling cars or the Louis Vuitton bags.
This week, government tried to set a national level of “enough” by encouraging wage and income restraint across the social spectrum.
Globally, the level of what is enough is set at an income of about R522?000 a year. When last I checked, efforts by the state to encourage restraint were going down like a lead balloon in both business and labour circles.
Ultimately, the discernment of “enough” is always a personal decision. How much sushi can one man eat?