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Features

Life among South Africa’s nouveaux riches

Life among South Africa’s nouveaux riches

11 May 2013

9:00 AM

11 May 2013

9:00 AM

Not long ago Cyril Ramaphosa, probably South Africa’s future president and ANC leader, attempted to buy a buffalo.

It was at an auction for hunters and game ranchers. He bid £1.3 million and, incredibly, lost out to another tycoon. At the same event he still managed to spend another million pounds on game species for his ranch — but later he apologised in light of the fact that South Africa is a ‘sea of poverty’.

One South African who is unapologetic about his bling and conspicuous spending is Kenny Kunene, who famously held a birthday party at his ZAR nightclub in Johannesburg at which guests ate sushi off the body of a young model wearing nothing but lingerie. The bar bill came to £47,000 — for champagne and Chivas Regal, mostly.

These are South Africa’s ‘black diamonds’ — the class of rich blacks who have appeared since the end of apartheid nearly two decades ago. BMW and Mercedes are selling so many cars in they’re opening new assembly lines to keep up. Gucci, Prada, Pink shirts and Louboutin shoes — there’s a boom in luxury goods south of the Limpopo that mirrors the shopping sprees of the new middle classes in Rio, Moscow and Shanghai. Their leader in bling is President Jacob Zuma, who is building a palace in KwaZulu-Natal that is supposedly costing more than £17 million — with accommodation for his seven wives, many children, a police station, clinic and nuclear bomb-proof bunker.

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The black diamonds may be tasteless in their excess, but they haven’t broken any laws. Many of them — especially the ANC veterans — got rich exploiting the laws of BEE, or Black Economic Empowerment, which aimed to redistribute wealth from white-owned businesses such as the mines, but this is all part of government policy. To be sure, there’s a lack of competition in business, restrictive labour practices, expensive costs of production — no shortage of carjackers, or firebrands like Julius Malema spouting racial, revolutionary rhetoric.

Where does South Africa stand nearly 20 years after Nelson Mandela’s election? Are the roads collapsing? Have the whites been pushed into the ocean? Has it all gone to hell under the blacks? No. South Africa is a roaring success story. Millions of other blacks have entered the middle class — just take a tour of Soweto — and almost across the board the whites have grown much richer than they ever were under the anti-capitalist economics of apartheid. The six richest South African individuals are worth more than £14 billion — and five of them are still white. There are millions still living in abject poverty, without electricity, in slums that stretch to the horizon. But South Africa is now a ‘Bric’-style economy with a GDP of £275 billion — equal to that of Scotland and Northern Ireland put together — and a third of the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa.

So why does Peter Hain accuse the British government of ‘high-handed arrogance and contempt’ towards millions of impoverished South Africans, because it is cutting its £19 million annual aid programme? South Africa’s ANC leadership calls the international development secretary Justine Greening’s move ‘tantamount to redefining our relationship’ — while British charities like Action Aid and Oxfam have joined the chorus of condemnation. This is all very odd given that Greening has simply acknowledged South Africa’s post-apartheid success and Britain’s wish to move from aid to trade.

Britain’s trade with South Africa is worth £6.7 billion annually, and as the black diamonds get richer, one imagines they will buy ever more expensive shoes, malt whisky and Harrods shortbread. The picture is echoed across the African continent, where the growing middle classes are impatient to be regarded in a fresh light by the outside world. These black diamond classes do not value humanitarian aid that targets what DFID called for many years ‘poverty alleviation’.

Instead they appreciate what other Bric countries see in Africa — that it is a continent of one billion consumers, not tens of millions of victims for whom white Europeans or Americans must ‘do something’.

It’s high time westerners woke up to the possibility that aid of the type championed by the former Labour development minister Clare Short may instead damage the interests of Britain, because Africans do not wish to be patronised.

True, South Africa is now the most unequal society in the world, overtaking even Brazil for its unfairness; 15 million South Africans live on less than £1.50 a day. But when Mr Ramaphosa can try to buy a single buffalo cow for £1.3 million, South African poverty is surely not a matter for British taxpayers to solve.

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