South Africa's 'Black Diamonds': Soweto's Young Middle Class Left Cold by ANC

By Jan Puhl

The African National Congress is expected to win Wednesday's election in South Africa with leader Jacob Zuma enjoying huge popularity among the poor, despite his corrupt reputation. But for many members of South Africa's burgeoning middle class, the ANC's heroic struggle against apartheid is ancient history.

Brian Khumalo, a slight man, is wearing designer jeans and a white shirt with a double collar. A black man, Khumalo moves with considerable ease through Johannesburg's primarily white fashion world. After a recent party, a white friend drove him home to Soweto, or South Western Township, 10 kilometers (six miles) outside the city.

To find the fastest route, the friend proudly switched on his new GPS navigation device, and suddenly Khumalo felt as if he were sitting in a time machine. "Attention, you are in a forbidden zone," a sonorous female voice warned repeatedly after the vehicle had turned off the highway at the Soweto exit. "Whites aren't allowed into Soweto," says Khumalo. "Only blacks belong there; it's the same as it was back then. But everything here has changed now, except that the news hasn't reached the people who program the navigation devices."

Khumalo snorts in contempt. He was born here, 38 years ago, and began his career as a hairdresser in the settlement. He now operates Soweto's only luxury beauty spa, where his employees cut the hair of the nouveau riche, give them manicures and massage their aching backs. "People have money," says Khumalo. "My business is booming."

Next door, graffiti artist Mr. Ekse has just painted a section of wall yellow, one of the colors of the African National Congress, and now he is spray-painting a portrait of Jacob Zuma. This time he is doing it for money, because this is an election campaign. "Of course I'm troubled by the nepotism and corruption at the ANC, but it's the only place for me politically," says Khumalo. "We have the ANC to thank for everything we are today."

Jacob Zuma, the top candidate of the party that became famous for its uncompromising struggle against the former white apartheid regime, is certain to win Wednesday's election. Ironically, the 67-year-old politician is one of the strongest symbols of the abuses in South Africa, the country that the ANC has ruled unchallenged since 1994. Zuma has trivialized the AIDS epidemic, and he constantly invokes his former fighting days. He was the target of an anti-corruption investigation for eight years, until it was suddenly terminated in early April -- for specious reasons.

Zuma is an idol for the poor masses, and for all those who could not benefit from the economic boom of recent years. But he is also a bogeyman for many former ANC leaders. Bishop Desmond Tutu, who, next to Nelson Mandela, is the country's greatest moral authority, is determined not to vote for him.

The Most Important Election Since Apartheid

But that won't stop Zuma, who faces no real challenge from the opposition. The Democratic Alliance, led by courageous Cape Town Mayor Helen Zille, is doing reasonably well in the Western Cape, but is perceived primarily as a "white" party elsewhere in the country. The Congress of the People (COPE) began as an alliance of highly respectable Zuma opponents, but is now also seen as a club of those whose careers in the ANC have failed. The party did very poorly in recent local elections in Port Elizabeth.

This may be the most important election since the fall of the apartheid regime. One of its central issues is whether South Africa will develop into a true multiparty democracy or whether the ANC will manage to maintain its absolute dominance. Paradoxically, the ANC's group of aging fighters is threatened by those who benefited from its triumph over apartheid, a new black middle class that is no longer interested in the party's old heroes and is becoming more and more vocal in its demands for a predictable government, and more transparency and democracy.

This new class of primarily young people that have become prosperous is referred to as the "Black Diamonds." It is believed to include up to three million people, out of a population of 39 million black South Africans. Their presence is even felt in Soweto, a once-decrepit ghetto that they have transformed into a perfectly normal part of Johannesburg.

The settlement was created by the apartheid regime to house black mine workers. In 1976, images of children who had been shot in Soweto while demonstrating against the white minority's apartheid policies circled the globe. After the end of apartheid, Soweto became an area of high crime. Today an estimated three million people live there.

Khumalo deliberately chose as the location for his beauty salon a spot across the street from the Nambitha Restaurant, a local hot spot for "Black Diamonds." The restaurant's owner had expected his clientele to consist mainly of tourists visiting the nearby Mandela Museum, but then affluent blacks took over the place. When they lunch there, eating salads or chicken fillets, they give young boys outside 100 Rand, or about €8 ($11), to wax their brand-new BMWs and Hummers in the parking lot. "The shift in mentality here in Soweto is dramatic," says Khumalo. "People are more focused on themselves and their affairs. They want careers."

This new mentality is most clearly in evidence at the Maponya Mall, a new shopping center in Soweto built by a former milkman. Automatic doors at the entrance open to reveal well-dressed families strolling under a canopy of glass and steel. The shops include a McDonald's, a jewelry store, boutiques and Primi Piatti, a restaurant serving pizza and tomato salad with mozzarella cheese. In the evenings, enormous bouncers monitor the dress code at the News Café, where the bartender serves colorful cocktails. One patron is wearing a sweater emblazoned with the words: "Live without Limits."

Maurice Dlamini owns Mug & Bean, a coffee shop that serves latte macchiato and refrigerated Black Forest cake. He is proud of himself, the mall and Soweto. "We brought Sandton to Soweto," he says. Sandton, in downtown Johannesburg, is South Africa's most exclusive shopping center. "It's like a rehabilitation," says Dlamini. "All the whites wanted us to do here was sleep. There was nothing here, no shops, nothing. They forced us to drive into the city for every little thing. Now we are the city."

While younger people hardly even know what apartheid was, older South Africans like Busi Skenjana still remember the days of oppression well. Skenjana, 52, has made her fortune in marketing. At weddings and funerals, her employees advertise chocolate bars, shampoo and cookies that white manufacturers were unable to sell to blacks in the past. She is the deputy chairwoman of Soweto women's business alliance and drives a gold-colored Audi.

ANC Will 'No Longer Be Judged by Historic Achievements'

Apartheid gave her a "fighting spirit," says Skenjana, without which she would never have made it in her career. She went on strike, demonstrated and conspired against the whites. However, Skenjana believes that the challenges facing the ANC today are more of an economic than political nature. "We are talking about housing, unemployment, the education system -- It's only a matter of time before the ANC is no longer judged by its historic achievements."

COPE's dissidents criticize the ANC for not paying enough attention to these real concerns of its voters. The group turned its back on the ANC at the end of last year, when Zuma brought down his rival, then President Thabo Mbeki. Today COPE holds its meetings at the Kopanong community center in the Dobsonville neighborhood, but launching a competing party in the midst of the ANC's old stronghold is no easy task. Fights and brawls are a common occurrence, some of them ending in deaths and injuries.

Mawethu Ntila is today's main speaker. Beginning in the early 1990s, he fought alongside his ANC comrades, before spending 10 years working as an engineer in Israel. "When I returned, I was appalled," he tells his audience. "The ANC doesn't award positions and jobs based on qualifications, but on achievements in the underground struggle. We should operate more like a business."

The audience applauds enthusiastically, but the crowd numbers less than 100 people. Nevertheless, Ntila remains optimistic because, as he says, the number of skeptics in the country is much higher. There are many, according to Ntila, who are unwilling to admit publicly that they will no longer vote for the ANC. He hopes that these voters, as well as the members of the new black middle class, will at least deprive the ANC of its current two-thirds majority. But the party retains so much authority that pollsters cannot even supply halfway precise predictions about real voting behavior on Wednesday.

Tana Sigasa has not allowed himself to be affected by the hectic campaign activities of recent weeks. Everything in his ANC world is still as it should be. The wiry 65-year-old veteran is highly respected far beyond the boundaries of Soweto. He enthusiastically shows guests around his house, one of those inexpensive structures that many of the nouveau riche in his neighborhood are now trying to transform into wannabe villas by adding columns and statues. Sigasa has made himself a comfortable home. In the days of the anti-apartheid struggle, he hid his AK-47 under the floorboards. Today white tiles cover the spot. "I used to play the guitar," he says. "I was as good with a guitar as I was with a Kalashnikov."

As a member of a soul band, Sigasa, a musician, toured southern Africa in the 1960s. He used his instrument case to smuggle messages, and later weapons, between exiled South Africans in Botswana and Soweto. He was put the ringer by police and beaten unconscious countless times. "But they never managed to make any charges stick," says Sigasa jubilantly, as if his triumph had occurred only the day before.

Sigasa has been to Soweto's Maponya Mall several times, but its glittering new world has no appeal for him. "There were many who lined their pockets after the victory over apartheid. The poor were left behind," he says.

He believes that the corruption charges against Zuma are the work of malicious conspirators from the Thabo Mbeki camp. "Zuma's blood flows with the people," Sigasa says at the end of our meeting, and points to the words in red on the back of his T-shirt: "The Struggle Continues."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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