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Sophie Chevalier

The Black Diamonds: a South African phantasmagoria

The social and economic emancipation of Black people in post-apartheid South Africa
is reflected in the emergence of an African middle class.
Public discussion of this
phenomenon usually hinges on two criteria: access to consumption patterns previously
reserved for Whites and residential mobility, that is, the number of households that
have left the townships and segregated areas for the formerly white suburbs.
A special term has been invented for members of this new social group, the Black
Diamonds. Its growth as a class of consumers has been and still is taken as a measure of
success in transforming the country’s society and politics. If consumption has not
exactly made this group (Herpin 1986), it has certainly been used to define it, more than
other criteria such as occupation or religion, for example.

Attempts to identify their consumption patterns oscillate between, on the one hand, a
Black/White contrast that is more often expressed these days in terms of different
culture than race and, on the other, a more relativist claim that Blacks do not just
emulate White consumption patterns, but rather each ‘cultural’ group develops its own.
I aim to show here how consumption offers significant insight into race relations in
post-apartheid South Africa and on social trends more generally. My sources are
discussions of consumer behaviour and life styles in the South African press, in blogs
and in marketing surveys.
This analysis of how the African middle class is represented
in public discourse is the first part of a longer-term ethnographic research project I have
undertaken in Durban recently,
the preliminary results of which are occasionally drawn
upon in this chapter. The broader study informs my understanding of the questions
raised here.

South Africa has long been an urbanized industrial society, when compared with the
rest of Africa. This started with the development of gold and diamond mining in the late
19th century (Meredith 2008). A Black working class was formed early on, eventually
giving rise to strong unions; and the African National Congress (ANC) was always
mainly an urban party. What distinguished South Africa as an industrial capitalist
society was the institutional effort put into maintaining white privilege while holding
down the wages and living standards of the African majority (Feinstein, 2005). Today
the country in the continent’s economic motor; a special issue of Jeune Afrique (2009)
recently confirmed that, out of the 500 leading African firms, 158 were South African,
accounting between them for just over half of total corporate activity.

Under both colonialism and apartheid, living space was allocated on racial grounds,
with each group of non-whites being assigned their own areas and Africans in particular
being confined to townships with inferior service provision. The Black workforce was
largely restricted to unskilled and low-paid employment in agriculture, the mines and
services. Indians and Coloured filled an intermediary sector of employment. Despite the
introduction in 1996 of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), an affirmative action
program in favour of the non-whites applied to both the public- and private-sectors, the
race and class basis of social inequality has since changed only slowly. But it would be
mistaken to assume that a Black middle class has emerged only since 1994. Africans
employed in the professions and commerce were to be found in the South Western
Townships (Soweto) and elsewhere well before the end of apartheid. Indeed the
apartheid policy of returning urban Africans to their “homelands” arose partly from the
perceived threat to segregationist politics of this urban social evolution. For all that, it
remains the case that middle-class consumption patterns still tend to be identified with
the Whites.

After 1994, some Blacks began to move into areas that had been reserved for Whites
and the urban areas in general became more racially mixed than before. This
phenomenon has been analyzed by many researchers and watched carefully by the
public authorities as one indicator of the emergence of a non-white middle class. At the
same time, the government has made a big effort to improve accommodation and
service provision in the townships themselves. In collaboration with the private sector,
they have launched shopping malls there of a standard and scale equivalent to those
built elsewhere. In the Durban area, the relatively modest Umlazi Mega City comes to
mind or the more ambitious Bridge City Shopping Centre in KwaMashu. In any case,
access to mass consumption, regardless of racial category, has become a central plank
of economic and social policy in the country.

If consumption is considered, as elsewhere, to be central to the formation of an African
middle class, we must note one peculiarity of the South African case. During the late
apartheid era in particular, access to mass consumption in the form of shopping malls
was largely restricted to Whites.
These malls – along with the development of tourism
– represented one of the few investment channels open to White capital within the
country, given the restrictions on the export of capital imposed by the boycott. Since the
ANC came to power, shopping malls have sprung up everywhere, reaching the whole
population. Indeed President Zuma has been quoted as holding a vision of economic
democracy that would grant every village its own shopping mall!

The new middle class that has grown quite rapidly after the end of apartheid benefits
from bigger salaries and access to a wider range of goods, but my informants often felt
themselves to be novice consumers, because shopping and access to services more
generally were so limited before. Now, unlike the Whites, they have no capital, savings
or inheritance to draw on and must go into debt if they wish to consume on any scale.
As one of them told me, The apartheid system made sure that we knew little about
money, since we were supposed not to have any! (Muntu S). This situation recalls
historical accounts of the birth of mass consumption in the United States and Europe in
the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the middle and working classes had to be
taught how to consume (Strasser and al 1998, Zelizer 1994). This literature emphasizes
the role of advertising and branding in the formation of consumer behaviour. Similarly,
the people I interviewed, especially those in their 40s, expressed an attachment to
brands that had been around for a long time: because we have always seen them around
us (Sipho G.). Knowledge of these brands was a kind of shopping guide for many
consumers. The younger generation, who became adults after the social and political
euphoria of the early 90s, were often more circumspect in their approach to the world of

South African journalists and marketing specialists across the racial spectrum have
written prolifically about the new Black middle class, exploring and debating the signs
of its identity and development, especially in newspaper articles (Krige 2011:294f).
These debates seem to be more prominent than economic analysis of wage levels,
official statistics of class composition or reports of bodies like the corporate-funded
Unilever Strategic Marketing Institute at the University of Cape Town and TNS
Research Surveys. A selection of newspaper article titles gives the flavour of the
predominant approach: Black middle class growing and spending (Sunday Independent,
16-03-2008), Black middle class drives sales (The Weekender, 1-12-2007), Black
middle class growing strongly (Sunday Tribune News, 16-03-2008). This refrain of
middle class growth has even included comparison with the dangerous trading
expeditions of Malinowski’s Argonauts (Herpin 1986: 266)! Some articles do recognize
how hard it is to identify and define this social group, for example, Black middle class
defies easy definition (Sunday Independent, 24-06-2007). But this does not prevent
many journalists and marketing men elaborating the behaviour of this new class nor
from identifying a specific socio-style (Herpin 1986) manifested in particular tastes and
consumption patterns. Obviously this group’s social and economic homogeneity is
questionable, but there is an answer! Marketing researchers have a widely used
instrument to hand that was specifically designed for this purpose, the Living Standard
Measure (LSM). It was created by the World Bank in the 80s, along with other
indicators of wages and employment, to guide its development policies. It is based on
ten categories, each defined by a number of criteria, ranging from income and housing
type to car and phone ownership.

South African marketing professionals have lately been looking for a device that would
allow them to describe consumers without using the system of classification prevalent
under apartheid. The LSM was perfect for this purpose since it allowed them to define
social categories without mentioning a person’s race (Burgess 2002). In consequence –
and this is just the first paradox of this conflicted practice -- it has been widely adopted
as a means of identifying the life-style of a social group whose only common
characteristic is the colour of their skin. When it became impossible to abstract
completely from race, which after all had been synonymous with class as a marker of
individual identity for over a century, it was replaced by the term ‘culture’, conceived
of as a marker of collective belonging. The second paradox, however, is that the same
marketing professionals invented another word for this class, the Black Diamonds,
which was taken up avidly by the media while reintroducing race by the back door. The
first publication of the Unilever Institute to use this term was its 2007 Survey: On the
Move. This study was based on interviews of 750 adults in South Africa’s main cities
drawn from categories 9 and 10 of the LSM (Krige, 2011, 297f).

Black Diamonds are members of the new black middle class -- well-educated,
professional and affluent. Walter Benjamin (2006), when writing about the construction
of urban social types in Europe, refers to the moral portraits typically produced by a
“panoramic literature” as part of a social drama he called a “phantasmagoria”. He
applied this metaphor, taken from a kind of magic lantern show, to Paris’s shopping
arcades built at the birth of modern capitalism, seeing them as spectacular theatres of
the new commodity culture. In contemporary South Africa, there is no shortage of
shopping malls or of moral portraits depicting their denizens. When it comes to
projecting images of the new consumer classes, the media are much more influential
than social scientists. Indeed the latter often draw on labels created by professional
specialists for their own analyses. The lifestyle categories that circulate as a result make
up for their lack of scientific status by the sheer volume of their public iteration. No
representation of this sort has been more debated in the South African media than the
Black Diamonds.

Moral portraits of the Black Diamonds rely mainly on descriptions of consumer
behaviour, but are seldom located in space or attached to an age-group.
They range
between two descriptive poles: anxiously positive at one end, disapproving, even
stigmatizing at the other. But in either case, the long history of economic inequality has
yielded a model of cultural legitimacy in which ‘good practice’, with reference to
money and consumption in particular, is implicitly taken to be White. The first extreme
celebrates the new middle class, while passing over the conditions of its emergence,
especially the racial dimension contained in the label itself. The second depicts an
alienated group forgetful of its social obligations after discovering the joys of money
and consumption. To borrow the terminology of two sociologists close to Bourdieu,
Passeron and Grignon (1989), media discourse is sometimes populist, sometimes
“miserabilist”, more often the latter.

All the articles acknowledge the importance of African economic emancipation and of
the emergence of a middle class as a condition and index of the transition to democracy.
A principal topic of discussion is the size of this class: the numbers battle pits optimists
(marketing agencies and the banks) against realists (mainly official institutions) over
the percentage of Blacks with middle incomes or over which elements of the LSM
ought to be included when defining this group. Enthusiasm for the class’s growth is
tempered by worries about its financial and political fragility. Anxiety is never far away
from a euphoria that is sometimes modified by scepticism concerning the accuracy of a
picture built up from income and expenditure patterns. Even so, the size of this class
and how its income levels are measured have significant political implications.

So what do the Black Diamonds get up to? Their life-style leaves little to be desired
when compared with the “conspicuous consumption” of the nouveaux riches Americans
described by Thorstein Veblen (1899); for these consumers, prestige was the only
consideration. Similarly the Black Diamonds are supposed to be mad about shopping,
with a developed taste for luxury cars, flashy clothes, big houses, private schools and
the most English accent possible (Cape Times, 11-04-2007). In recent years, this
picture has changed a bit, with less emphasis being made on clothing and food and
more on hi-tech gadgets for the home and the latest style of mobile phones (Star, 30-11-
2007). In short their consumption is conspicuous and is described as such, not only by
the media, but also by the professionals I interviewed (marketing and advertising
Some articles express reservations about it all: ostentatious display of wealth
by the new Black middle class is thought to be in bad taste for a country with so many
poor people. Against the moralizers, blogger Sentletse Diakanyo
has come to the
defence of conspicuous consumption on the part of his fellow-citizens by appealing to
the central idea of Adam Smith’ s Wealth of Nations (1776), namely that the pursuit of
individual self-interest is the motor of economic development. At the same time, he
draws on a psychological argument produced by a study of Black and Hispanic
consumer behaviour in the United States: conspicuous consumption is a response to
historical deprivation by groups who wish to affirm their new social standing.
Comments on this blog post were mixed; but the sheer number of them shows the level
of interest among his readers, most of whom had little time for the moralizers.

This passion for consumption leads to a high level of indebtedness, since the Black
Diamonds allegedly don’t know how to manage their budgets: Black middle class needs
to start saving money before it’s too late (Weekend Post, 05-08-2006). Excessive
household debt levels came to be considered a national problem, leading the
government to bring in new legislation. The National Credit Act of 2007 required the
banks and other credit institutions – which are often linked to chains of shops – to
undertake closer scrutiny of their client’s financial capacities. There soon followed a
rash of stories in the media about the banks seizing homes for repayment of bad debts.

Moreover, indebtedness is a common theme on the national television channels, with
whole programmes devoted to instructing participants and viewers alike on how to
manage their budgets (compare Zelizer 1994). Those taking part – almost all of them
black women -- explain with some contrition how they fell into a downward spiral of
debt because of failure to control their expenditure. Against this, a number of articles in
the press point out that, in the absence of capital, savings and inherited assets, the Black
Diamonds are constrained to borrow if they want to buy an item that costs a bit more,
like a vehicle or accommodation.

The Black Diamonds’ passion for consumption is thought to be conducive to alienation
on grounds that are mainly economic, but also political. For Black middle class values
money, not social responsibility (Cape Times, 11-04-2007): they have abandoned any
sense of solidarity with poorer Blacks. They are individualistic and only interested in
money, wealth and luxury. Apart from this egotism, in some accounts the whole class
depends for its very existence on government affirmative action policies, especially
Black Economic Empowerment (BEE).
So the Black Diamonds stay close to the
power that supports them (the ANC government), since they owe their social position to
the relationship (Daily Dispatch, 15-10-2007). As a result, the new Black middle class
is considered to be too passive: it seems to lack the political independence that a middle
class should have (Black middle class is too dependent, The Citizen, 03-10-2007).
Writers who are critical of this supposed lack of independence never specify the model
middle class they are referring to. It could hardly be South Africa’s White middle class
who were not noted for being independent of the apartheid regime! In reality, this
argument is mainly a pretext for dismissing the claims of BEE. The line goes, is it a
good thing for economic and social development that some individuals are promoted
less for their competence than for the racial group they belong to? Such a line is, of
course, highly contentious; but the issue is violently debated in the press at all times.
Despite all this, political scientists have shown that the Black Diamonds are not slow to
criticize and punish the powers-that-be, having played a significant role in the fall of
Thabo Mbeki (Habib 2008).

Some admittedly marginal voices go even further towards the miserabilist pole,
claiming that the Black Diamonds’ consumer behaviour ‘whitens’ them so that they
lose their ‘African-ness’. They are called ‘coconuts’, a slur that means someone is
black on the outside and white on the inside.
Questioning their African credentials in
this way is a common feature of the writings of Black authors and commentators. For
example, Kopano Matlwa’s novel Coconut (2007) raises some valid questions
concerning the African identity of South African Blacks in relation to the Whites and it
won the European Union Literary Award. Quite apart from the text’s literary merits and
the legitimacy of the questions it poses, one could ask if its main theme echoes how
westerners like to represent what an African should be. An extreme version of this point
of view appeared recently in an article published by a French newspaper: Will the
country become African one day? The Blacks drive their Mercedes and work in the
offices of international consultants. All they ever lead is the life of White people.
(interview with A. van Dis, South Africa is one vast social laboratory, Libération,

This question of identity is much broader than just Black/White relations; it also
involves the place of South African Blacks in Africa itself.
Others claim to have found
a contradiction between the Black Diamonds’ aspiration to be ‘Western’ and their
attachment to their ‘cultural roots’, as testified by the common practice of returning to
the townships to take part in cultural activities or even to do their shopping (Study
shatters BMC myths, Sunday Independent, 05-03-2006). Krige (2011: 300) cites several
sources along these lines, some even speaking of ‘cultural schizophrenia’ in a reprise of
the old opposition between tradition and modernity. My field data corroborate these
findings to some extent, except that my informants did not experience this phenomenon
as a contradiction in their lives. They were happy to go back home for some of their
shopping – for meat in particular, for a haircut or to church. Something similar was
found among early generations of city-dwellers in Continental Europe who would
return to their home village or town for a variety of services and commodities, while
taking care of their aged kinsfolk.

In sum, the typical Black Diamond, according to their depiction in the South African
media and more generally in public discourse, is an alienated creature, both
economically and politically, who has lost his cultural identity. For sure, some
journalists and leader-writers take a more nuanced view, recognizing and offering
criticism of the White standard of reference that underlies much of this discussion.
These stereotypes make Blacks out to be consumers of goods, but not their producers;
the new class is represented as being homogeneous; and ethnographic and sociological
research on the Black Diamonds’ actual behaviour is still rare (see also Krige 2011:

The picture of the Black Diamonds, built up around an imagined life-style, goes along
with a matching set of ‘moral’ characteristics that are reminiscent of the
phantasmagoria identified by Walter Benjamin (2006). An illusion that diverts and
distracts us from reality,
it masks what is really at stake in society and politics, in this
case the persistence of racial stigma and of a behavioural standard based on the White

The label Black Diamonds seems to be free of ethnocentrism and racial connotations
because it is based on an objective description of consumer behaviour; but of course it
introduces race through the back door. The people so described certainly don’t miss this
point. Despite its ubiquity in the South African press, some journalists do now use the
expression more cautiously: a survey undertaken by the Mail & Guardian (03-01-2008)
showed that the majority of those interviewed did not appreciate being called Black
Diamonds. My informants too preferred to be called middle class or professional
They were particularly sensitive to the racial reference contained in the term,
believing that relative affluence should not be associated with race, now that it no
longer restricted to being White.

The Black Diamonds stereotype also makes it harder for the social sciences to take
consumption seriously as a way of studying the emergence of a new middle class in
South Africa. Any such study should be comparative, since so much research in that
country is inward-looking. Comparison might allow us to see how participation in mass
consumption, after a long period when South Africa was closed in on itself, may be a
way of affirming ones political stance there, of declaring an attachment to the nation
(Heinze, 1990),
while at the same time making links with the rest of the world
through buying international brands. Analysis of consumption patterns, taking into
account historical context and generational differences, helps us to understand better the
articulation and transformation of race and class which for so long were inseparable.
My own ethnographic research in the Black community included some Indian and
Coloured informants; all parties spoke of significant differences in consumer behaviour
between the various groups as well as between generations. Such differences might be
thought of as being ‘cultural’, but they are also inscribed in shared and separate
histories of discrimination under apartheid.

If the Black Diamonds are an illusion, they are a projection of Benjamin’s
phantasmagoria translated into the circumstances of South Africa’s burgeoning
commodity culture. As a newcomer to the country, I have been inspired by the early
results of my ethnographic research there; but I am also consistently drawn to parallels
with social history elsewhere, including my own research in Europe and what I have
read about America. South African capitalism may have its own historical
characteristics, but, when it comes to questions of class and consumption, it might not
be so unusual after all.

Benjamin, W. 1999. The Arcades Project. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
Benjamin, W. 2006. The Writer on Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire.
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From Life in the New South Africa. Cape Town: David Philip.
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sociabilité dans l’espace de trois quartiers de centre ville (Paris, Lyon et
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Feinstein, C. 2005. An Economic History of South Africa: Conquest,
Discrimination and Development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Habib A. and Bentley K. (eds) 2008. Racial redress & citizenship in South Africa.
Cape Town : HSRC Press.
Habib, A. 2008. Substantive Uncertainty, African Analyst, III (2): 79-98.
Heinze, A. 1990. Jews immigrants, mass consumption and the search for American
identity. New-York: University of Columbia Press.
Herpin, N. 1986. “Socio-style”, Revue Française de Sociologie, XXVII: 265-272.
Krige, P.F.D., 2011, Power, identity and agency at work in the popular economies of
Soweto and Black Johannesburg, PhD dissertation, University of Witwatersrand,
Matlwa, K. 2007. Coconut. Cape Town, J acana Media.
Meredith, M. 2008. Diamonds, gold and war: The making of South Africa.
J ohannesburg & Cape Town : J onathan Bell Publishers.
Passeron, J .-C. and C. Grignon. 1989. Le savant et le populaire. Misérabilisme et
populisme en sociologie et en littérature. Paris: Seuil.
Strasser, S., McGovern, C. and M. J udt. 1998. Getting and Spending. Cambridge:
Veblen, T. 1992 (1899). The Theory of the Leisure Class. New Brunswick :
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Zelizer, V. 1994. The Social Meaning of Money. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

An article on this topic, but with somewhat different content, was published in French as ‘Les
Black Diamonds existent-ils? Médias, consommation et classe moyenne noire en Afrique du Sud’,
Sociologies Pratiques, n°20/2010.
Historically Black has meant non-white and some whites have claimed to be African, while the
African National Congress does not claim to be a party for Blacks only. I use the terms Black and
African interchangeably, as is usual in South Africa today.
This analysis of the print media is based on the ‘SA Media’ data bank of the Free State
University available free on the internet. I made a collection of about a hundred articles taken
from daily and weekly national newspapers. These were limited to English language publications.
In addition, I read the South African online press and blogs such as ‘Thoughtleader’ linked to the
Mail & Guardian.
I draw here on the early results of a long-term research project, begun in 2008, ‘The middle
classes of Durban/eThekwini: social trajectory and cultural identity’. This research was made
possible by a grant from the French Institute of South Africa (IFAS) and a contract from the
‘Economic and socio-cultural forecasting’ group of Renault. I am also grateful to the School of
Development Studies, University of Kwazulu-Natal , Durban for extending their facilities to me as
a visiting research fellow. In addition to ethnographic fieldwork, I have learned much from an
archive of Zulu biographies at the Killie-Campbell Africana Library at UKZN compiled in the late
70s and early 80s.
The first shopping mall in Durban, the Musgrave Centre in Berea, opened in the 1970s.
The publications of this Institute are only available for sale and are expensive.
Interviews with professionals in charge of marketing automobiles, for example, revealed that this
new middle class was taken to be nationally homogeneous and no interests was shown in whatever
regional differences might exist.
Conspicuous consumption has its own television programme in South Africa, Top Billing
(SABC3), every Thursday evening, plus a magazine of the same name. This programme shows
luxurious domestic interiors and celebrations (above all marriages) with protagonists from all the
country’s communities.
House prices fall in ‘perfect storm’ (The Mercury, 03-06-2008).
See Krige (2011: 299) for a discussion of the policy implications of how the size of the Black
middle class is measured, with particular reference to BEE.
The American equivalent is “Oreo cookie”, a black chocolate biscuit with white cream on the
See this blog and the comments, for example:
Benjamin’s critique of capitalism as a dream, as famously developed in the Passagenwerk,
known in English as The Arcades Project (1999), lies beyond the scope of this chapter.
This is referred to only rarely in the articles I consulted (one exception being Sunday
Independent, 24-06-2007)
Moreover, a representative of TNS Research Surveys objected to this in the issue of 10 J anuary
2008, claiming that half the people they interviewed liked being called Black Diamonds! So the
case is not yet settled.
In a study of Jewish immigration to New York from Eastern Europe at the beginning of the 20th
century, the author shows how participation in the early stages of American mass consumption
was one way that this community expressed its attachment to the new society. The abundance of
commodities there was – and probably still is – a marker of North American identity.