Meet the buppies

A decade into democracy, South Africa's elite blacks prosper. But their glitz and glam hide a world-class inequality that only gets worse.

Jennifer Abrahamson
April 30, 2004 1:05AM (UTC)

Tshepo Boikanyo signs his name on the dotted line and in an instant becomes the proud owner of a $70,000 BMW. The 33-year-old lawyer, dressed sharp in a black suit, glides across the floor of the BMW dealership to ogle his new car. "I considered buying a Jaguar, but I opted for the BMW after test-driving one. And this is a black dealership, so I felt I had to bring my business here," he says. Litha Nkombisa, one of the dealership's four owners, hands him a bottle of champagne and the keys to his titanium silver 525 Coupe. "You see, they take care of me here," Boikanyo says. "It's like a second home."

It's Friday afternoon, the busiest time of the week at Joburg City Auto, South Africa's first black-owned car dealership. It sells only BMWs. Young black men stroll in unannounced during the lunch hour, accompanied by well-groomed girlfriends who coolly eye a fresh supply of polished "beemers," also jokingly known as "black man's worry," or "be my wife."


The two-story, glass-plated dealership building shines oddly bright amid the ruins of rundown downtown Johannesburg, where city streets bustle with impoverished pedestrian masses who could never dream of owning a Beetle, let alone a BMW. Inside the dealership, softly gurgling fountains lull shoppers as they weave between sleek black sedans and Technicolor convertibles. When the sales staff is busy with other customers, visitors can thumb through a copy of Enterprise, a black business magazine, or sit back and watch European models strut the latest styles on the Fashion Channel streaming endlessly from a widescreen TV in the dealership's cafe. After a much-touted opening last December, Joburg City Auto raked in record sales, selling 42 cars in its first month.

Once a sign of white privilege under apartheid South Africa, the luxury cars that now choke Johannesburg's congested highways are increasingly driven by buppies -- South Africa's rising class of young black elites who demand nothing but the best. Ten years after Nelson Mandela was voted into office as South Africa's first black president a milestone celebrated this week -- many blacks in their 20s and 30s who grew up in the country's impoverished townships are thriving. They make up the country's new ranks of lawyers, advertising executives, IT managers and business owners. They dine in the swankest restaurants, shop at the most exclusive malls, and toast with the finest champagne.

While the buppies flourish, their fortunes accompany a growing polarization between the haves and have-nots in South Africa. When Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) came into power a decade ago, hopes were high that life for the neediest would improve. Despite tremendous gains in righting past wrongs -- like creating the economic opportunities that made the buppies possible -- more than 40 percent of the population still languishes in extreme poverty. Only Brazil has a larger income gap. In South Africa, the top quarter of the population earns 85 percent of the country's wealth.


The four owners of Joburg City Auto are among the lucky. Childhood friends who grew up in the townships of Eastern Cape, South Africa's poorest province, the foursome rose through the class system with relative ease in the aftermath of apartheid's legacy of racial and economic inequality. And they mean business.

One night last week, they hosted a scotch tasting at the dealership, an event intended to lure buppies into buying or test-driving cars. Men wearing pin-striped suits and silk ties trickled in after a long day at the office. They mingled as the hired DJ pumped up the volume and Jason, the young white tasting host, poured ruddy scotch into thin flutes. "The real reason we're here tonight is to drink!" laughed owner Ciko Thomas, as he coaxed the crowd into a circle, announcing that a financial services representative was on hand if they felt the urge to purchase a BMW. "This is the only African black-owned dealership in the country, and it's our home and your home," he said.

The guests politely sipped scotch. Jason seemed to know his crowd. As he instructed the men to swirl and sniff their drinks, he joked that he had the biggest nostrils, eliciting a collective laugh from the crowd. Pointing to one guest who was puffing away, Jason noted that the Cohiba cigar nicely complemented the aged Glenfiddich.


Jason used to manage Katzy's, one of Johannesburg's hottest black bars. Surrounded by expensive clothing shops in an upscale mall, Katzy's is where "you show me your gold card and I'll show you mine," as one scotch-drinking guest said. Jason hosts tastings all over the country, dabbling in anything from caviar and cigars to cognac and champagne. He tells me that, without a doubt, he increasingly caters to the buppies.

And the buppies are growing more discriminating in their tastes. "I only drink whiskey now. I gave up beer altogether," said the dealership's financial services representative, 29-year-old Andile Makhunga. "It's a much more quality drink. The people we socialize with, the people in this class, spend more money on what they drink, and if you want to get into that market, you do the same."


According to owner Mncedisi Mayekiso, the dealership's secret to success is quite simple: Know your customer and treat him or her well. That's easy for the 33-year-old, who is a perfect reflection of his customers. "Look around here. These are our contemporaries, and they are starting to make decisions," Mayekiso explained as a massage therapist making the showroom rounds worked the knots out of his shoulder muscles. "We said we'll do it differently: We'll mingle with customers. We socialize together and watch football together. We went to university together. We grew up at the same time and aspire to the same things."

Besides Katzy's, Mayekiso and his friends hang out at Wandie's and Nambitha, two stylish joints in the most affluent neighborhood of Soweto, the sprawling black township on the edge of Johannesburg that not too long ago was racked with protest and violence. Nambitha is surrounded by large homes, and its front parking lot is jammed with BMWs and Mercedes on weekend nights. Yet, just a short drive away, on the other side of Soweto, blacks continue to live in abject poverty, with extended families sleeping in one- or two-room shacks.

Mayekiso, who studied at the University of Cape Town on a scholarship from the U.S. Agency for International Development -- and says his role models were Mandela and Bill Gates -- was among the first blacks to attend a top-notch, previously whites-only university. His driving ambition was to succeed in a way never possible for his parents' generation. In his first job as a marketing trainee, Mayekiso's salary doubled that of his father's.


"We were extremely lucky. When I go home [to the working-class township in the Eastern Cape], I see my contemporaries and now they ask me for money. I look back now and I say, those people could've done more if the situation had been different. We have those stories to remind us where we come from," Mayekiso said.

Mayekiso's vision of opening his own BMW dealership came in part from an experience in Johannesburg, South Africa's commercial capital, when his own worth as a car customer was underestimated. "Funnily enough, two years ago I walked into a dealership and I was driving an Audi at the time. But I was looking for a BMW to buy, and they said, 'Sorry, sir, can you afford it?' Why do we bother buying from dealerships that don't want to sell to us? We saw the emergence of huge black middle class and thought, let's take advantage of this."

They had already built successful information technology and marketing careers, but last year Mayekiso and his partners decided to make a real investment in the new South Africa and open their own business. "We were confident we'd move up the corporate ladder anyway, but we said, hang on, the country's going through an intense change. There was a huge debate a few years ago that political transformation was happening but economic transformation was not happening. Only 1 percent of the economy was owned by blacks. And we saw ourselves as catalysts. As young South Africans, there's a role we can play in that economic transformation," he said.


The four partners felt compelled to open their dealership in the heart of black Johannesburg, rather than the traditionally leafy white suburbs to the north, where most businesses fled in the 1980s as crime increased downtown. "For us, we said, there's a market here with the government, and the big banks are close by, and no one was servicing them," Mayekiso explained. "But also, the government is making an effort to rejuvenate the downtown area. We felt a sense of responsibility to our government. We're where we are today because of what they've done for democracy. For us it was a win-win situation in that we could still live up to our ideals, but also make money."

Mayekiso, who earned an MBA in London, has a firm grasp on the larger economic issues confronting his country. "Government said it will create an enabling environment of 25 percent black ownership of business by 2012. Otherwise it will create animosity in our society," he said, referring to the ANC's Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) initiative, which is aiding in the transfer of business ownership to blacks, as well as setting quotas for black management and promoting skills development.

Economic and social experts have different forecasts on what the next 10 years will look like in South Africa, but almost all agree that while economic prosperity has benefited a portion of black society, the hulking chassis of poverty left over from the old South Africa remains. Although the government has provided more than 1 million houses with water taps and electricity connections, millions more remain without.

"It's of concern to the black government that the working and middle class is making progress, while the other 22 million people get poorer. Poverty has gotten deeper. It's more unequal now than it was in '94," said economist Sampie Terreblanche, author of the book "Inequality," who thinks the government's liberalization and globalization policies are keeping the poor in their place. "I think we'll see very much of the same in the next 10 years and the gap will continue to widen. The high level of crime, infectious diseases and unemployment will augment this poverty, and I'm afraid that unless there's a dramatic change in policy, we'll see the same in the next 10 years."


Other experts don't take such a doomsday approach, giving the ANC-led government credit for bringing South Africa so far along the democratic road in such a short amount of time. "South Africa probably has the fastest-growing middle class in human history," said Lawrence Schlemmer, the director of Mark Data, a consumer and social research organization based in the nation's capital, Pretoria. "I doubt any other society has achieved what we have."

According to Schlemmer, roughly 10 percent of medium to large businesses are owned by blacks, even if the majority belong to a select few. The working class is also accumulating some wealth, he said, if at lower levels. But like Terreblanche, he agrees that conditions for the underclass continue to plummet, telling me the poorest barely stay afloat through government welfare grants.

Colin Reddy, the research director at Business Map Foundation in Johannesburg, says that if companies want to win business from the government and the growing black middle class, they'll be inclined to bring in black partners. But he believes it's too early to gauge whether the economic transformation will be successful across the board. "I always say that society, like the Roman and Ottoman empires, and now the West, took centuries to develop and went through a learning process," Reddy, a former KPMG management consultant, said. "Ten years is a short period to make a judgment call on failure or success." But like his counterparts, he noted that change, however small, must take place for the nation's poor. "If you don't have water, and suddenly it's there, that itself is a huge boon," he said. "Your short-term aim is not to drive a BMW; it's to get that running water and moving from a shack to a concrete house."

Back at Joburg City Auto, Mayekiso takes pride in his newfound privilege. "We're no longer apologetic because we can afford to go out and can afford to pay for things. Traditionally we always kept away from the [white] suburbs because of [apartheid's] Group Areas Act, but now we can eat out wherever we want," he said. "This black emerging middle class aspires to all things quality, and BMW lends itself to this market. This is something a few years back you could never imagine."


As the poor continue to toil and hope for better jobs, more homes and a brighter future, the young buppies will undoubtedly continue to gain power on the South African scene as they come of age. Unless the ANC, which won a landslide victory during April 14 national elections, addresses the growing inequality, the buppies could face increased animosity from those excluded from their good fortune. For the time being, Mayekiso is optimistic.

"We all see ourselves as people who can play a role in the arts, fashion, business, politics, you name it. We also see ourselves as the next wave of leadership in moving our democracy forward," Mayekiso said as he grabbed his cellphone on his way to network with customers. "We all want to be successful so the young ones who come next can have role models."

Jennifer Abrahamson

Jennifer Abrahamson is a freelance writer in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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