Finance – Abantu Syndrome
Is the fear of how others perceive us leading us into financial ruin? Your finances could be great, however...
“There are three things I value more than anything in the world – my partner, my son and my Range Rover. If one of those should go, the toss-up will be between my man and my son. That Range Rover is going nowhere!” jokes a friend when I tell her about the article I’m working on.
I say “joke” because she laughed, but I also know that deep down, she was serious. For my corporate building manager friend, the idea of downgrading is not something she’ll ever consider because she believes she’s “earned” her seat at the sushi table — and there’s no way she’s going back to peanut butter sandwiches and black tea.
“I get that,” concurs another friend, an entrepreneur steadily working herself towards an unashamedly nouveau riche lifestyle of exclusive estate living, insanely expensive private schools, and million-plus Rands worth of German engineered wheels. “If I ever had to choose between a Range Rover and a man, you’d best believe that man’s got to go!”
My friends may come across as shallow and even a little callous, but one would have to be living under a rock to not know that the Black Diamond dream is a sham and that the South African middle class is drowning in debt, living it up on credit cards and bank loans. The monstrous estate home, the sleek beast on the driveway, the international holidays that are painstakingly recorded and curated for your social media viewing pleasure — most people starring in these self-made fantasies are deep in debt and constantly fighting panic and anxiety.
So, why are we so scared of what people will think or say about us if we drive a Corolla instead of a Porsche Cayenne — and live in Westonaria instead of Waterfall? Why does the ‘Abantu Bazothini’ syndrome wield so much power over us?
“The problem is that some people don’t pluck up enough courage to downgrade as they see this move as too ‘humiliating’ for them. Pride gets in the way. I’m sorry to say, but pride comes before the fall and it takes you ten steps back,” writes Money Psychologist and columnist, Winnie Kunene, in one of her blog posts.
South Africa’s favourite #FinancialFitnessBunny, Nicolette Mashile, weighs in with another angle. “If you come from a background where you’ve been a ‘have-not’ for a very long time, downgrading your lifestyle is difficult because you almost feel like you’ve graduated from ‘the struggle’ and you’re in a different space. So, the thought of downgrading hits hard; it’s a psychological and personal journey that one didn’t think they would need to go through,” says Mashile, a social entrepreneur, TV host and financial speaker.
‘ABANTU BAZOTHINI’ SYNDROME UNPACKED
It’s a psychological restriction, block or bias people saddle themselves with, according to Mashile. “I’m not a psychology expert, but this thinking is built over years and experiences of being a have-not for a very long time. We then attach certain ideas in the way people perceive us, and the way we perceive ourselves based on others’ opinion of us. It’s a status issue; feeling like people are keeping score when they’re around you, based on what they see on the outside,” she adds.
This fear of what others will think can be so pervasive that some would rather endure the anxiety and constant harassment from creditors than go through what they see as the “humiliation” of downgrading. From personal experience, I know how one gets to be treated like a demigod by family or the community when they’re seen to have “made it”; an assumption that leads one to having to uphold a certain status quo, not to mention, become an unintended benevolent benefactor of the so-called Black Tax.
THE BLACK TAX TRAP
“Black Tax can play a huge role in delaying financial success or it can be a potential investment, depending on who you’re paying it forward to. The reality is that the people who pay it are perceived to be financially well-off just because they have careers and certain lifestyles that are seen as an upgrade. Expectations are created. However, if you were to sit your family down and explain your financial boundaries, they would be able to understand your obligations and restrictions better and pull back, instead of you going into debt trying to manage those expectations,” Mashile says.
Kunene has been advocating for years ,through her columns, for people to live within or below their means. “Don’t keep up with the Joneses when you can’t even afford to contribute towards a colleague’s birthday cake at work. However, you need the Joneses. They have everything – the big car and big house, they brag about their holidays, and everyone wants to keep up with them,” she writes. “Little do you know that they’re also drowning in debt. They’re just covering it up and you ignorantly assume they’re coining it. You need the Joneses to inspire you not to be like them.”
A private banker for one of the big four banks, who prefers to remain anonymous, confided that he spent most of his time
offering debt counselling to his clients and referring them to in-house financial planners. “Soccer stars are the worst culprits when it comes to this. They literally ask what people would say if they don’t drive the same – or better – car than the guy in the rival team. I do my best, but it’s heartbreaking how entrenched this selfdestructive thinking is,” he says.
The biggest reason for people to fall into this trap is pressure — from family, peers, friends, lover or even oneself, says Mashile. “When you find yourself under such pressure, you need to take a step back and look at where it stems from. You then need to create a financial blueprint for yourself that will help you make wise financial decisions. With a financial blueprint, you will not be swayed by pressure. Yes, life will not go strictly according to your plan, but you must have a plan — a clear direction to help you channel your finances. Have a purpose-driven financial decision-making matrix where you’re able to know that the decisions you make will urge you closer to your goals,” Mashile adds.