Learning from South Africa’s new rich

So this morning I announced that I was going to go into greater depth into the story of the rising wealthy class in South Africa.

There was a lot of fertile ground in that story, and some important other issues that I think deserve a more generous portion of the spotlight than I could devote in an anti-poverty piece.

Black, white and green

But researchers have found a surprising change in the racial composition of the country’s wealthiest few: while a white minority still dominates the economy, there is an unexpectedly fast-growing number of wealthy black South Africans. A study of South Africa’s richest 10 per cent — once almost exclusively white — found that today nearly 40 per cent are black, according to the University of Cape Town’s Unilever Institute of Strategic Marketing and RamsayMedia.

For better or for worse, money talks when it comes to political power. Since the end of apartheid, black South Africans have been fighting for political legitimacy against a colonial elite. What we’ve learned here in North America, for example, is that having your legal rights recognized does not immediately translate into political power. It is simply the removal of one barrier – a formidable one, to be sure, but still only one.

The creation of a new, upwardly-mobile class of black South Africans likely mirrors the jump of the black middle class that happened immediately following the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When legal discrimination ceases, the very elite level of the formerly-oppressed can vault, rather quickly in fact, into positions of economic power. The key issue to black South Africans as a larger group, however, is what happens next.

The Talented Tenth

South Africa’s new rich are keenly aware of where they came from, with this reflected in consumer habits and financial support for friends and family. They understand the risk of “falling backwards,” the study found. Ten percent live in the townships — unheard of in previous decades, and evidence of both family connections and the improving circumstances in some townships such as Soweto, Mr. Simpson explains.

So this is a discussion that requires me to get into formalized black thought, which is not territory that I’m terribly familiar with, but I’ll do my best. W.E.B. DuBois, a prominent black intellectual who was most prominent around the turn of the 20th century and beyond, introduced in his writings the idea of “the Talented Tenth”. This Tenth refers to the top decile of the black population who would be the first to succeed, and who had the obligation to work to advocate and work to elevate the other 90% who had not yet achieved full civil status. He felt that the solutions to problems within the black community would come from the black community itself, rather than granted by white society.

Whether or not newly-rich black South Africans are reading DuBois (and my guess is that they aren’t, but that high-ranking people within the African National Congress have), they are certainly living up to the idea of the Talented Tenth. This, as far as I am concerned, is a really good sign. Re-investment of capital, both monetary and human, into black communities means that the whole community benefits. This, incidentally, includes the wealthy people making the investment, since the streets become safer, the population becomes better educated, and a viable middle class forms.

Perception vs. reality

Entry-level white South Africans are twice as likely as their black counterparts to view themselves as “not being very well off.”


Another surprise finding was a major difference in perceptions of customer service in South African shops and restaurants. Wealthy white South Africans felt that service is generally poor, and levels of service are declining. Black South Africans were far more likely to rate customer service as generally good, and to say that service levels have improved.

Warning to new readers (I love you, by the way): this is the part of the conversation where I start to sound racist. Please bear with me as I walk you through the argument, try your best to check your privilege while reading, and then be ruthless while you eviscerate me in the comments.

I have once before dipped my toes into the water of the sharp divide between perception of racial issues between whites and people of colour (PoCs). In that piece, I said this:

These kinds of findings are useful only in understanding what the public perception of a phenomenon is – not the strength of the phenomenon. We should be, and have reason to be, extremely skeptical of the claim that white people are the most discriminated against ethnic group – they disproportionately represent the political and economic power in the United States, and it would be quite something if that’s somehow completely reversed out among ‘the little people’.

The origin of this discrepancy in perception is, I think, based on the phenomenon of ‘regression to the mean’. When a group begins to lose its privileged status, especially a group that has enjoyed that status for so long, returning to a level that dispassionate third-party observation would describe as ‘average’ looks, to them, like persecution. We see it with religious groups, we see it with “Men’s Rights” advocates (which I put in quotes for a reason), and we see it with white people.

I am not accusing white South Africans of open racial hatred and longing for “the good old days” of apartheid. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to learn that a large contingent of such people exists, but whether this attitude is borne of overt prejudice or systemic racism is immaterial to my point. What we are seeing is a reflexive backlash against a new social order in which those who used to be excluded are exerting more influence and demanding to be let in. Not even demanding – shortcutting the request process altogether and simply arriving.

I laugh wryly whenever I hear someone from South Africa say that the country doesn’t have a race problem anymore. Racial problems do not get solved overnight, regardless of the best of intentions. What we can do, though, is learn from each other’s experiences and find the silver linings whenever they appear.

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  1. lordshipmayhem says

    To me, “regression to the mean” makes eminent logical sense. The perception of the change in customer service is exactly what I’d expect to see, no surprises there.

    It’s something that I’d expect even from some who thought themselves relatively free from racial prejudice. They would tend to echo their social group, even if they don’t agree from an intellectual standpoint.

  2. Etcetera says

    I would heartily agree that “regression to the mean” is a valid concept for the privileged classes in most situations. In South Africa, this is no less true, but there are additional elements.

    The Afrikaners (who make up the majority of whites) were always a typically oppressed class, whether by their own Jan Compagnie (which wanted no settlers) their own Dutch Reformed Church (which refused to send predikants or teachers) and later, the English (who taxed and cheated them repeatedly). The Afrikaners only gained power through the Broederbond infiltrating minor government offices and setting up apartheid from within and even then, for a very short period of time. To them, they have only gone from oppression to oppression. When you’re constantly fighting for your rights, it’s very difficult to think of those you’re oppressing yourself.

  3. Crommunist says

    That’s important to know, and I had no idea that the history of the Afrikaners was so fraught with that kind of problem. It is certainly difficult to see past your own blindness when it comes to oppressed peoples oppressing others. The popular black support of Proposition 8, as a reflection of ongoing homophobia issues in the black community, is certainly an example of that. I am hoping to partially dissect this very issue in tomorrow’s post.

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