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South Africa's "black diamonds" overtake whites

After apartheid, upwardly mobile blacks now number more than whites in middle class.

Township residents picnic beside luxury vehicles in Soweto's Thokoza Park. They hang out in glitzy bars, drive luxury cars, compete for the best homes and shop in upmarket stores — South Africa's black middle class has arrived and experts estimate it probably overtook the white spending group a little over a year ago. (Antony Kaminju/Reuters)

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Black South Africans sharing in the country’s economic successes are now free to choose where they live, but the geographic segregation imposed by the apartheid regime still weighs heavily on their decisions.

Thanks to a string of affirmative action policies intent on redressing the inequalities of the past and, at least until recently, years of sustained economic growth, South Africa has developed a sizable black middle class. Just how big remains the topic of hot debate, but at least one study estimates the new black middle class now has more spending power than the country’s white population.

Whites make up about 10 percent of South Africa's total population of 48 million and for generations they have dominated the middle classes. But now that blacks, who make up 79 percent of the population, are getting better education and employment opportunities, they are swelling the ranks.

Fifteen years after the end of apartheid, the quality of housing still varies greatly between the posh suburbs where the majority of the white urban population lives and the black townships on the outskirts of cities — which are not much more than dormitory towns made up of small, matchbox houses without good connections to electricity and water.

“There was quite a significant trend up until recently of moving from the townships to the suburbs and there is a very practical reason as to why this is the case,” said John Simpson, director of the University of Cape Town-based Unilever Institute of Strategic Marketing. “The suburbs typically are closer to the schools, closer to the shopping malls, closer to the transport and jobs and so on.”

Many Black South Africans enjoy their new middle class status, as shown in the slideshow below.

After South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, the government worked to boost the size of the country’s fledgling black middle class. Most of this was achieved through the Black Economic Empowerment program, where companies are rated in terms of their black ownership and the number of black executives and managers. Corporations that rank well on the B.E.E. scale are favored when it comes to government contracts and licenses.

Who is actually part of South Africa’s black middle class is not completely clear. Simpson said the group’s definition is based on lifestyle rather than a strict level of income. Middle class cannot be defined by income alone. Education, career paths and aspirations are also important features that determine who is in the middle class.

South Africa's "black diamonds," as the Unilever Institute calls them, score seven or higher on a scale of living standards of one to 10. The scoring system includes income and education levels as well as the type of occupation. In terms of earnings, 61 percent of black diamonds earn at least $800 a month, but households have often more than one wage earner. The category has seen a steady growth in recent years with a 15-percent rise to reach 3 million black diamonds in 2008, according to the Unilever Institute.