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Peo­ple are ac­cli­ma­tis­ing to democ­racy, writes and con­spic­u­ous con­sump­tion is no longer at­trac­tive. Stokvels and unit trusts are the new black BMWs

CityPress - - Voices & Careers -

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

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