People are acclimatising to democracy, writes and conspicuous consumption is no longer attractive. Stokvels and unit trusts are the new black BMWs
here was a time in the 1990s and the early noughties when the aspirations of many of my contemporaries were to wear a particular shoe, live in a townhouse and drive a specific car. But it wasn’t just any kind of car – it had to be a BMW, preferably in black.
I lived in Durban. Visits to Joburg were always about big, black BMWs. My friends had them, and every other car on the road announced the arrival of the black middle class. I loved the message. These people were black, powerful and determined to take up the space that had been inaccessible to them. If you drove a sleek black number, you didn’t miss a party, a funeral and the after tears.
Before Facebook, this was how we saw each other and our newly acquired wealth. Neighbours, cousins, old school friends, the guys at the corner – they all watched the cars. The classmates who had left school early dropped their jaws in disbelief and envy.
Black people were climbing the greasy pole of the corporate ladder. Graduates barely out of university were being offered massive bank loans on the strength of anticipated future earnings. This was before the National Credit Act. They took the loans and headed straight for the car dealer. The shine of democracy radiated from the black BMW.
To access one, you had to work in the corporate sector – at huge accounting firms, banks and multinationals. Then there were the free-spending parastatals and government departments hungry for qualified black people.
Those of us who had done the bachelor of arts degrees and didn’t have important surnames were not as lucky. Thank heavens for employment equity. But we lived in envy. If we could afford cars at all, we bought black VWs. After all, they were from the same German stable as the BMW.
I was one of those who moved to Joburg, partly attracted by the allure of the shining German sedan. I never made it past the Polo. It is now in its ninth year.
But to some degree we, as black people, are now less enamoured of bling and rampant consumerism.
With the exception of the Khanyi Mbau sushi set, the bling wave accompanying the BMW has broken. I have seen people climb down the greasy pole. They are now lubricated by a new ambition.
They want to know themselves and explore their passions. They are willing to admit how deeply unhappy they were at the banks. The sexism. The racism. They have sold the BMW for a smaller Audi; a Hyundai; a Polo; perhaps a Ford. These are the cars that now clog Joburg’s arteries. The expensive BMW is not yet a dying brand – people still love them. But there has been a clear shift.
People are now exploring their long-repressed artistic desires. My female friends are opening micro event-management companies. Starting one’s own NGO is hard work but it’s fulfilling. Road running is becoming more important than attending earlymorning meetings. One’s girth is no longer a measure of one’s wealth. Afros are easier to manage than weaves. Academia is not all that bad any more. I have also taken a huge salary cut to move closer to what I love doing. My old Polo matches my job well. As academics, we accessorise our poverty with old cars and leather bags. The worn bar counter suits our pockets better than the watering holes of Fourways.
To be sure, the downscaling impulse has partly been influenced by the economic downturn, which exposed the tenuous position of the black diamonds. Without the entrenched networks and trust funds to cushion the jolt, perhaps the downgrade was inevitable. Government expenditure on expensive ministerial cars suggests we will carry on spending if the money’s not ours. But for the average middle class black person, the pressure to wear one’s wealth physically has abated.
Stokvels and unit trusts are becoming popular. A group of my male friends have a savings stokvel. People are doing courses on working the stock exchange. Book clubs are an accessory. Zukiswa Wanner, James Baldwin, NoViolet Bulawayo and K Sello Duiker are being analysed throughout the city. The quality of life is trumping the quality of the car. Prominent artists are no longer shy about using public transport. They have seen too many others die poor.
It’s too early to tell, but I suspect we are normalising and acclimatising to democracy. This democracy is not going to disappear if we safeguard it. We don’t have to swallow it all in one gulp. We are realising it’s more fun to savour the taste. And we may be finding that reading a book beats drinking overpriced beverages at a lifeless party in costly but uncomfortable shoes.
Ka Canham is a poor academic