New middle-class blacks transform South Africa

JOHANNESBURG — Ntombi Shabalala arrives at the Design Quarter mall in an affluent suburb of Johannesburg in her Hyundai ix35 SUV, wearing red suit pants, a black jacket, and black boots. Gesturing to a waiter with a manicured French-tip fingernail, she orders a fresh-squeezed carrot juice.

She’s come a long way since 1998, when she moved to Johannesburg four years after South Africa held its first all-race elections. Then, Shabalala shared a one-bedroom apartment in Hillbrow, in a crime-ridden area that often had power and water outages. Her two daughters stayed at home near the eastern coal-mining town of Newcastle with an aunt.

Her income came from selling food from a trailer on the street — a fitting beginning for someone who became a store manager at McDonald’s Corp.’s South African division. ‘‘I am now able to chase the good life, in the right direction, investing for the future,’’ Shabalala, 39, said last month. ‘‘Through my job, it’s taken me from nowhere to being able to be the woman I am today.’’


Shabalala is a member of South Africa’s growing black middle class, 4.2 million people strong last year and double what it was in 2004, according to a study released by the University of Cape Town’s Unilever Institute of Strategic Marketing in May. The country now has more middle-class blacks than whites, and the group spends more annually as well.

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The newly affluent are moving from townships and the countryside to formerly whites-only suburbs, boosting the revenue of companies from car retailers to supermarkets. Woolworths Holdings, Capitec Bank Holding, and McDonald’s are among those providing management jobs for people such as Shabalala.

Since 1994, national income per capita has climbed 40 percent, access to power has risen to more than 80 percent of the population from 50 percent, and more than 3 million houses have been built, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan said last month.

The middle class is visible at Johannesburg’s Sandton City, the Southern Hemisphere’s biggest shopping mall, where high-heeled shoppers carry bags from Forever New and Young Designer’s Emporium, mothers push infants in Bugaboo strollers, and young black men try on Italian shoes.

‘‘We have to do better than our parents and grandparents did,’’ said Zanele Motaung, 24, who works in an accounting office, as she shopped at a Truworths International shop.


While South Africa’s middle class is growing as the nation’s overall economy expands, the unemployment rate of 25.2 percent is the highest of more than 30 emerging-market nations tracked by Bloomberg.

Income inequality has widened since 1994, with 35 percent of the population living on less than $51 a month. The Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality in which a reading of zero means society is totally equal, worsened to 0.63 in 2009, compared with 0.59 in 1993, according to the World Bank.