Several factors have helped swell the ranks of South Africa’s black middle class, including credit availability, education, the government’s Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) programme and general economic growth, which has led to more job creation, says Simpson. The BEE programme aims to ensure the participation of previously disadvantaged nonwhites in the corporate sector. The policy includes tax benefits and employment preference. “Sheer economic growth in a consumption-driven economy and easy access to credit helped to make the number of black middle class families rise,” says Simpson.
Entrepreneurs such as Cooper continue to find themselves faced with many opportunities. She affirms that “for the next 20 to 30 years, this black middle class market is going to expand further”.
Aside from contributing to economic growth, the rise of the black middle class “shows a movement towards the normalisation of the society”, argues Simpson. Prior to 1994, when apartheid officially ended, blacks were oppressed, had few job opportunities and had restricted access to education. The economic and political landscape has since changed, with the growing black middle class changing historic inequalities.
While Zuma and others sound positive about the future of South Africa’s black middle class, Simpson believes more remains to be done. “Poverty at the bottom end hasn’t reduced very much,” he says. The rise of some has resulted in a widening of the gap between rich and poor. South Africa has become “one of the most unequal societies in the world”.
Simpson’s study shows that about 70% of blacks in the middle class feel increasing pressure to support less fortunate dependents. This pressure is captured in the award-winning 2011 documentary Forerunners, which portrays the struggles of four black South Africans striving to find balance in their new lives and cope with the tensions that result from attempting to fulfil enormous family responsibilities.
Fast food invasion
Increased spending power by the black middle class has caused an influx of fast food outlets and, from that, new health challenges, such as obesity. By June 2013, fast food giant McDonald’s operated 185 restaurants in South Africa, and it is set to increase the number to 200 by the end of the year. Burger King opened its first restaurant in South Africa this year and expects to open more. “The [spending of the] middle class will be the saviour for South Africa down the line, not exports,” Burger King CEO Jaye Sinclair told Bloomberg.com.
But South Africa’s Medical Research Council is worried that “obesity is not only a problem of the developed nations but is becoming an increasing problem in countries undergoing societal transitions”. Studies show that 39% of women and 10% of men in South Africa are obese already — meaning that their weights are greater than what is generally considered normal for their heights. But that’s not a problem for the growing fitness sector. Gyms are opening throughout middle class neighbourhoods such as Protea Glen, Orlando West and Orlando East in Soweto.
With black middle class families moving from townships to suburbs, housing construction, especially in new settlements, is expanding. South Africa’s Financial Mail newspaper reports that there was a shortage of 600,000 housing units for the working class in 2013. The paper attributes the current backlog of about 100,000 housing units a year – and growing — to rapid urbanisation, a reduction in the average family size and a fast-growing middle class. Affordable neighbourhoods for middle income earners in the cities of Johannesburg, Pretoria and Durban are becoming overpopulated. The high demand for housing also puts a strain on services such as electricity. During the winter, for example, the exploding demand for energy often causes power outages.
Still, many development experts agree that the growth of the black middle class is good for South Africa. It strengthens Africa’s biggest economy and moves the country steadily towards a truly prosperous society. “Better days are indeed ahead for South Africa,” Cooper says confidently.
This article was first published by Africa Renewal.