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Johannesburg - The black middle class is growing rapidly, racial inequality has declined dramatically, and the era of conspicuous consumption is most likely on the out.
This is according to a comprehensive study conducted by researchers at Stellenbosch University, who spent the past two years working with various departments to discover the truth behind South Africa’s current socio-economic climate.
According to the study, the country’s black middle class has grown from 350 000 individuals in 1993 to almost 3 million last year.
“That is not to justify the pace of change, but rather to dispel possible misconceptions fuelled by recent evidence of social fragmentation and racial tensions.
“While there is certainly still room for improvement, data on the incomes and characteristics of South African households suggests that we are making steady progress,” said Professor Hennie Kotze, research fellow at the Centre for International and Comparative Politics at Stellenbosch University.
Professor of economics Servaas van der Berg said patterns of consumption among the black middle class would be changing in the coming years.
He said there were misconceptions about why “black diamonds” were so obvious with their spending.
Throughout his study of consumption patterns, Van der Berg discovered that it’s not an attempt to appear middle class, but rather to build up the assets that other middle-class cultures - especially whites - have accrued through decades of affluence.
So, while affluent black people have higher income levels, they still have fewer assets than their white counterparts.
He said that once the asset base of the black middle class reached similar levels, conspicuous spending would decline, and the middle class’s patterns of consumption would become similar to those of other cultures.
Meanwhile, anthropological studies conducted revealed that there is still a connection between the term “middle class” and apartheid thinking.
Many affluent black people interviewed revealed that they would not identify as “middle class” because the term was tied to race.
However, Van der Berg believes that if the economy stabilises, the black middle class will continue to grow rapidly.
“While there are signs that race is no longer as dominant as it was before in determining economic advancement, white South Africans are still over-represented among the rich, and poverty remains concentrated among black and coloured South Africans,” the report says.