• World

New Power Generation

4 minute read

It’s almost 2 a.m., and Kilimanjaro is starting to heat up. Dancers gyrate to the sounds of DJ Christos, a Greek-South African who mixes European house and American hip-hop with floor-jamming local tracks. Perched around the tables, women apply makeup with practiced nonchalance while men joke with friends and watch the women. The Johannesburg club, which opened two years ago (it’s named after a nightspot that was popular among African diplomats in Washington in the 1980s) attracts a mostly black crowd. But inhere what matters is not the color of your skin but what car you drive and what clothes you wear. “You get quality people, quality service,” says Lewis Tombri, a regular who has brought along some friends from Durban for a night’s partying. Tombri, 33, is the part owner of a company that supplies food and cleaning products to corporate clients. Business is good. Tombri bought a BMW 528i a few years back, but when all his friends started to buy Beemers he added an Audi A4 to his garage. “To be out of the league I have to drive something different. They’ve all started buying Audis now so I’m looking for something new again.”

Buppies, as South Africa’s newly moneyed black professionals are called, are buying luxury cars, moving into affluent, formerly all-white neighborhoods, and partying at clubs like Kilimanjaro, which charges an entrance fee of up to $18 — the cost of two days’ food for a poorer family. “It looks like a comfortable life,” says Faith Mokale, 23, who two years ago founded Short Left Advertising with two friends, in part to redress the lack of black advertising agencies targeting the emerging black market. “This is a place you come to show off your stuff. Give it a couple of years and I will be driving one of those cars outside.”

South Africa’s new black élite want the same things as rich people everywhere: fine cars, luxury houses and beautiful clothes. But the white marketeers targeting this “emerging market” are still getting used to the idea of catering to blacks with high standards and the income to insist those standards are met. “Black clients are more picky when it comes to spending,” says John Herbst, 40, managing director for empowerment at Pam Golding Properties, one of the country’s largest real-estate firms. “Whether they earn 2,000 rand [$300] a month or 2 million rand [$300,000] a month, they want the same level of service” — an observation that’s also true of whites, though no one would find it remarkable. Simply put, black consumers want value for their newly earned money. “If you’ve missed out for years and suddenly have disposable income, you’re going to make damn sure it works for you,” says Ciko Thomas, 34, who with three partners recently opened a BMW dealership in downtown Johannesburg. At the opening party, a string quartet serenaded a cross section of Johannesburg’s jet set, including VJs from South Africa’s television music channel, DJs from the city’s hippest radio stations and car company bosses.

Understandably enough, successful blacks like to show the folks back home that they’ve made it. Businessmen who grew up in townships and now live in richer suburbs regularly head home on weekends to have their new automobiles detailed at a local car wash. “If you park your car in [wealthy] Sandton, everyone else has one,” says Mokale. “If you go to a township you’re going to be king.”

The jump from liberation to self-gratification has angered some poor blacks who see a new gap opening up in South African society. A University of South Africa study found that in 1991, the richest black households earned $25 for every $1 earned by the poorest. By 1999 the disparity had grown to $32 to $1. Zakes Hlatshwayo, who was jailed by the apartheid regime along with many people who now hold positions in government and business, believes that growing inequality could fuel unrest. “We used to have a common enemy,” says Hlatshwayo, programs manager at the Civil Society Secretariat, an umbrella body representing left-wing groups. “Now it seems to be everyone for him- or herself as we rush for resources. [In prison] we talked about how we would share wealth once we got to power. Now sometimes I can’t understand the guys when they talk.”

BMW’s Thomas agrees that more needs to be done to fix poverty but says successful blacks have nothing to be ashamed of. “When we sell cars we’re talking to a lifestyle, not a race group,” he says. “And that can only be good.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com