South Africa: Rise of The Black Middle Class
Image: Dinesh Krishnan
t 33, Thabo Mkhize is unmarried, works hard and aspires big. He leaves for work at 6.30 a.m. and isn’t back till 8.00 p.m. He bought his modest town-house in 2006. With a 42-inch LCD TV, leather sofas and a modular kitchen, his Johannesburg house isn’t plush but it is comfortable. He drives an Audi. The native from KwaZulu-Natal is the first in his family to get a college education, a government job, travel overseas and live a comfortable life. He is now educating his sister. “He has made all of us proud,” his mom glows.
Mkhize is part of a growing black middle class in South Africa called Black Diamonds. They are a product of the South African government’s Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) programme that kicked in post 1994 after the end of the apartheid era. They form around 10 percent of the 22 million over-18-year-old black South Africans and contribute up to 40 percent of the spending in this group. This segment is growing rapidly. Figures at the end of 2008 show that their number was growing at 15 percent. “We have found them fairly resilient consumers amid recession,” says John Simpson, co-founder and director, UCT Unilever Institute of Strategic Marketing.
Black Diamonds like Mkhize are just one of the reasons why India Inc is looking eagle-eyed at South Africa. This well-off middle class has the spending power and SA’s millions of upwardly mobile poor hold tremendous buying potential. Not surprisingly, a slew of Indian firms have announced their South Africa plans. Godrej acquired two fast-growing hair care companies, Rapidol and Kinky, to tap into the $2-billion haircare market; Jindal Steel & Power recently acquired Kiepersol thermal coal mine; the Kirloskar Group early this year acquired Braybar Pumps.
Tata Consultancy Services, one of the first IT companies to enter SA, counts Nedbank, STRATE (South Africa’s Central Securities Depository), University of Witwatersrand (Johannesburg) and Standard Bank as its clients. Essar is looking to set up a power plant in South Africa. The country is the largest exports market for Tata Motors that offers a complete range of passenger and commercial vehicles.
For Indian companies, South Africa is the best entry point into the bigger African market, and most companies are using it to test waters before a full-headed dive into Africa. But South Africa is a distinctly different kind of market with unique dynamics, both in regulation and consumption. There are five essentials a company should know before heading there:
The African National Congress leads South Africa in a coalition with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party (SACP). President Jacob Zuma’s Keynesian economic policy is grappling with the post-apartheid transition that continues to be a problem 16 years later. This is why the South African government’s emphasis on social grants, job protection, worker retraining and continued thrust on affirmative action is so important.
However, BEE, the government’s affirmative action plan, is not without its flaws. It should be noted that ‘blacks’ in South Africa includes Africans, mixed-race people and Indians. Companies get points if they satisfy criteria (black individuals in positions of power) like ownership, management, and employment equity. But this has given rise to “tender-preneurs” — black entrepreneurs who have cashed in on BEE rules.
The Democratic Alliance (DA) leader in Johannesburg, Mike Moriarty, says the City of Johannesburg had to cancel a contract with a consortium led by Global Event Management (GEM) to manage the iconic Soccer City stadium that will host the final of the Football World Cup. A Sunday Times report said that a security guard, Gladwin Khangale, a black citizen, bought 26 percent of GEM less than a year before the tender was handed over to the consortium.
Businesses in South Africa complain that BEE norms make hiring complex and costly. They say hiring standards have to be diluted to accommodate blacks. But keeping political realities in mind, expect such initiatives to gain ground — not weaken — as the South African government grapples with the world’s most unequal society, high unemployment (over 25 percent) and high crime rate. “ANC’s political survival is crucially dependant on the growth and consolidation of the black middle class,” says Ahmed C. Bawa, a South Africa sociologist who teaches at the City University of New York. And ANC will do all it can to protect them.