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South Africa's "black diamonds" overtake whites

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

“As a group, the black middle class is the biggest spending group in South Africa at the moment,” Simpson said. “It probably overtook the whites, I would say, about 15 to 18 months ago.”

But Sipho Seepe, head of the South African Institute of Race Relations, said the size of the black middle class has been exaggerated. Seepe said that because the black middle class has been established in part through affirmative action programs and lucrative government positions for veterans of the liberation struggle, the favoritism has done little to improve the competitiveness of Africa’s largest economy.

“It’s also a middle class that is more dependent on government jobs, dependent on B.E.E. shares, not a group of entrepreneurs, and that is where the major weakness of the black middle class is,” Seepe said. “They are not creators of jobs.”

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John Loos, a property economist with First National Bank, said that as soon as they get a university degree, many young black professionals choose to move to formerly all white suburbs. These areas are attractive because they’re often located close to office jobs, fancy shopping malls and good-quality schools, which are priorities of the black middle class. Houses there are also considered good investments, Loos said.

A drawback to the white suburbs is that they are impersonal. Most houses are surrounded by high walls, and residents often don’t know their neighbors. Many new black residents say they miss the sense of community from the more tightly-packed townships.

More than 42 percent of the black residents of the formerly white suburbs say they would prefer to live in townships, and more than 60 percent of them still spend a lot of time there, according to the Unilever Institute’s research.

Things may be changing, however, to make the townships more appealing. Major retailers have been setting up stores in townships, and a very upscale mall was recently opened in Soweto. The next step is the arrival of large-scale employers in the townships.

“They’re all becoming more attractive places for people with purchasing power to stay, and I suspect that might just slow that brain drain out of the townships towards the suburbs,” Loos said.

One development that attempts to offer the best of both worlds is Cosmo City, a project north of Johannesburg that includes both subsidized housing for relocated inhabitants of nearby slums and up-market houses for professionals.

Petrus Magoele, 22, is one of those young professionals. He is a real estate agent who earns as much as $3,200 when he completes a sale — a huge sum by South African standards.

Sitting in a $100,000-house, Magoele acknowledged that Cosmo City, started in 2005, still lacks shops, but he said residents come here for the quiet and the lack of crime. And most of all, Magoele said, he appreciates the area’s friendly vibe.

“People who live here, they understand each other," he said, "and they help each other.”

Africa's middle class is a GlobalPost series to highlight the continent's key but under-reported population including education opportunities in Ghana, the challenge to Kenya's middle class, the struggles to rebuild a middle class after years of civil war in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and the diaspora of thousands of Africa's ambitious in the U.S. and Europe.