By: Elliott Stam

Cape Town is a city of contrast. Heavy fogs drift over the coastal metropolis in the early hours, only to retreat after an ample dose of South African sunshine. Hot days taper off into chilly nights; raindrops meet the sunlight to form arcing rainbows. Parallels can be seen in society as well. One street is lined with lavish estates, while a few blocks away people live in shanty homes constructed from little more than plywood and sheet metal. On the streets luxurious sports cars pass vans packed with impoverished township commuters. With a Gini coefficient of 0.63, South Africa is ranked by The World Bank as one of the most unequal societies in the world. The coefficient, developed by Corrado Gini in 1912, is the most commonly used metric of income distribution in a society. A score of zero is considered perfect equality and a score of 1 represents complete inequality. Today South Africa is even less equal than during apartheid. Racial economics, however, are not as black and white as they used to be. An emerging class of blacks, labeled “Black Diamonds” by TNS Research Surveys and the UCT Unilever Institute in 2006, has removed its shackles from centuries of oppression and found success as entrepreneurs, politicians, and educators. Having achieved prosperity, what do these so-called “Black Diamonds” owe to their communities and to their country?

Twenty years after the end of apartheid wealth is still tied to race, but it’s no longer a defined prerequisite. Shortly after taking control of the South African government in 1994, the African National Congress (ANC) accelerated its efforts in advocating for Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). The ANC hoped to elevate the financial situation of all black South Africans by requiring companies to report their compliance with the Employment Equity Act, a law dictating that businesses must strive to employ a racially representative workforce, and by pressuring firms to place more shares and jobs into black hands or else risk losing their operating licenses. In some ways these initiatives have been successful, but they have fallen short of their broader purpose. The policies have in fact made some black South Africans more wealthy, but only those privileged enough to be positioned for success. Instead of all black South Africans becoming more wealthy, a select few have become extremely wealthy. Between the extremes of wealth and poverty the middle class has formed. Unfortunately for those at the bottom of the totem pole, their opportunity to escape poverty seems to be narrowing as the rich become richer and the poor fall deeper into despair.

Wealthy blacks have varying perspectives on what they owe back to society, and many wonder if they owe anything at all. Some are offended by the public scrutiny they receive, pointing out that the rich white minority is allowed to flaunt its wealth without bearing the same expectations. Many blacks whom have found success say they are entitled to enjoy their wealth. Kenny Kunene, a successful black South African businessman, responded to a public criticism of his lavish lifestyle in an open letter in October 2010, “I should not have to defend what I spend my money on – a huge milestone in my life – when it’s honest money spent on honest fun. You remind me of what it felt like to live under apartheid: you are telling me, a black man, what I can and cannot do with my life.”

Some of the less fortunate black South Africans may see Kunene’s point of view as an abandonment of Ubuntu, a community-driven cultural ideal that values the well being of the people as a whole over the benefit of individuals. Ubuntu encourages fairness, the sharing of resources, and respect for human dignity.

There are also a number of successful South African blacks who continue to give back to their communities. Some see their success as a culmination of the community’s efforts and simply wish to facilitate the progress of others. Harold Herman, a black South African and long-time professor at the University of Western Cape (UWC), has worked for decades to improve the opportunities available to UWC students. He grew up and went to school in District 6 during apartheid. Throughout his career, Professor Herman says he chose to turn down job offers from universities in foreign countries where he could achieve greater personal gains, opting instead to promote the education of his people in South Africa.

In some cases the road to success may even change the connection between successful black South Africans and their communities. As Herman describes, many students come to universities from rural areas where cultural traditions vary greatly from what’s experienced on campus or in the cities. Black students often come from families with little or no history of higher education, and their school experiences can change the way they see the world. Discovering new interests and exploring perspectives that go beyond what they grew up with may change them in ways that creates barriers between the students and their communities. Herman says many students do not wish to return to their rural homes after completing their studies, further isolating them from their roots. This in turn contributes to the inequality present in South Africa – communities will often invest their resources in the growth of individuals, but the investment can never be returned if these individuals don’t return home. Herman believes that one possible solution is for graduates to return home for at least a few years after completing school, to share the benefits of their skills and education with their communities.

Another impact of Black Diamonds choosing not to return to their communities is that the younger generations may be missing out on having role models they trust. Jeffrey Arendse, principal of Kalksteenfontein Primary School (KPS) in Cape Town, is well acquainted with the difficulties of educating children living in poverty. KPS is a township school that exists to offer its students an education that can open doors to a future that doesn’t involve gang life or dealing drugs. Arendse says that he came from a troubled background similar to that of the students who attend his school, and that he explains this to his students to establish credibility with them. Even so, many students initially reject his message that they can achieve the same level of success he has reached. After all, they see that he now lives in the suburbs instead of a shanty home in the township. Arendse believes he can only begin to plant the seed of hope in their minds once he has clearly communicated that he comes from the same place they do.

South Africa is a country recovering from wounds that no individual can fix. Black Diamonds are free to make personal decisions as they see fit; however, if those who hold the financial power continue to allow inequality to progressively worsen then they may be jeopardizing even their own financial future. The majority of the population can only suffer so long before they demand a better standard of living. In nature diamonds are formed under extreme pressure, and only through external forces do they eventually rise to the earth’s surface. Similarly, South Africa’s Black Diamonds have developed under the pressures of an expectant society – will they rise to the occasion by collectively honoring traditional Ubuntu values, or will they allow the pressure to grow until they are forced to address this issue by an increasingly frustrated and impoverished majority?


© 2018 Center for the Digital Globe