South Africa: Rise of the black diamonds

The empowerment policies put in place by the government have created a black middle class.

Despite more than 40 per cent of black South Africans being unemployed, for an estimated two million of them times have never been better. They are South Africa's new black middle class.

They are driving flashy cars, eating at exclusive restaurants and wearing designer labels. For them, the past is dead, and the future is bright. All of which is the biggest story in South African advertising today.

"The rise is monumental," the Grey South Africa chief executive, Anne Nurock, says of the economic empowerment of the black middle class. "It is changing the country, the economy and the way we do advertising."

There has been a massive expansion in black spending power, which has fuelled a huge appetite for conspicuous consumption, particularly of products associated with personal status.

Research produced last year by the University of Cape Town's Unilever Institute of Strategic Marketing describes this new class as Black Diamonds. The report reveals that after years of being denied opportunity, wealthy black consumers now account for around 20 per cent of all consumer spending in South Africa and that figure is growing by 30 per cent each year.

In 1994, for example, 29 per cent of the black population owned a car. By 2005, this had risen to 42 per cent. TV ownership over the same period leapt from 54 per cent to 65 per cent and ownership of electric stoves went from 36 per cent to 57 per cent. Most astonishing of all, microwave ovens (a middle-class status symbol) rose from only 6 per cent to a massive 45 per cent.

Black Diamonds are estimated to command a total buying power of 130 billion rand (more than £10 billion), with 10 per cent of black South Africans responsible for 43 per cent of black buying power.

Unearthing Black Diamonds

The problem for advertisers lies in understanding and reaching this new class with its own values and habits in a way that resonates with them.

Nunu Ntshingila, Ogilvy & Mather South Africa's chief executive, says the huge disparity in wealth between blacks and whites under apartheid meant that during that era, advertising treated the two groups as exactly what they were: two separate societies.

Ntshingila says: "At the start of my career, you had to live between these two societies separated by 'parallel walls'. The race issue does continue but the world is more integrated."

In the days of white rule, for example, pay-per-view TV was the usual media when targeting the white market. Black South Africans could not afford such media so advertisers targeted them through radio. But rapid increases in TV ownership among the black middle class and access to pay-per-view TV means there is a blurring of the lines for planners.

Brad Aigner, Universal McCann South Africa's managing director, says: "There is no separate strategy for targeting the black middle class because they are pretty much mirroring the upper class in media habits.

"Traditional channels such as TV are particularly effective for reaching this new black middle class."

Because so much social mobility has occurred in only 12 years, the impact has been most obviously felt in planning. The same, however, is true of creativity. Getting to grips with the lifestyles of two million people who have formed a whole new class in only a decade takes lots of research.

Ogilvy & Mather's planning director, Rob Hill, says this is one of the biggest differences between the South African market and those in more developed countries. He says: "Compared with most developed markets, we spend a lot more time trying to get the details of people's lives and how they are engaging with brands."

This means plenty of immersion and ethnographic research - spending time out on the streets with consumers or filming in their kitchens.

Upper or lower middle class?

As understanding of the black middle class improves, so a more complicated picture of its many layers is emerging. Hill's research in this area has led him to conclude that the assumption by many advertisers in recent years that the black middle class can be treated as a homogenous group is misguided.

"There are differences and we think there are at least four segments that include the younger segment, a conservative segment and an extremely affluent group that has been created by black economic empowerment, whom we refer to as 'BEEs'," he says.

One example of the different strata within this new class can be illustrated by the geographic spread of Black Diamonds highlighted in the Unilever study. Interestingly, the number of black people who have moved to Johannesburg's leafy, traditionally white, middle-class suburbs is fewer than half a million, compared with the 1.6 million who remain in the townships by choice. This decision has had an unusual effect on the perception of different neighbourhoods - leading Nurock to remark: "It's amazing how cool Soweto has become recently."

African pride

One of the most significant consumer trends is a reassertion of an African identity. This is taking many forms, from the rise of the South African fashion brand Sun Goddess, which uses traditional African patterns and colours to create chic women's fashion; to the increasing use by brands of African imagery and traditional black cultural references.

One such example is Grey's spot for Med Lemon, an over-the-counter cold remedy that uses humour to engage black audiences while referencing traditional culture.

In the ad, a cold sufferer visits a traditional African healer, called an inyanga, for a cure. In an acknowledgment of how "modern" the black middle class and even inyangas have become, he pops out the back and returns with a Med Lemon.

Mindful of the taboos of the past, the FCB Group executive creative director, Ashley Bacon, says: "For a long time the common enemy was apartheid, so black culture collectively shared intent in the political agenda. But now they're looking back to their cultural roots and this is translating into 'Proud to be a South African'.

"We, as an industry, probably censor ourselves too much because advertisers and consumers want to be more adventurous with this new cultural identity."

Mike Bosman, the group chief executive at TBWA\South Africa, agrees a new cultural identity has emerged but is hopeful that the parts of the past that are celebrated will overcome the negatives and allow an even greater flowering of free expression.

He says: "Today it's such an open and frank environment. I even hear lots of words and terms that were taboo being bandied about in a jovial way."

The future

The South African economy has been through a renaissance since the ANC took power in 1994, dwarfing the performance of its neighbours. South Africa, for example, generates 50 per cent of all the continent's electricity, made up 40 per cent of Africa's total industrial output last year and accounted for 45 per cent of its mineral production.

But perhaps one of the most compelling arguments for a bright future is Bosman's observation on the new generation of South Africans.

"No-one under the age of 27 remembers or has direct experience of what it was like under apartheid. There is, therefore, increasingly no need to treat people differently in advertising in South Africa," he says.

Add to that strong optimism, the lowest interest rates for 25 years and growing conspicuous consumption and it seems that not even high unemployment will threaten the future of South Africa's Black Diamonds.


Nunu Ntshingila has modestly resisted attempts to turn her into a symbol of positive change in the South African ad industry since being named as the chief executive of one of the biggest agencies on the African continent last year - Ogilvy & Mather South Africa.

Nonetheless, her career stands as an emblem of how the country has unlocked opportunity for its black majority in the past 12 years. Her rise, from O&M graduate trainee, via an MBA in the US and a job upon her return as the communications director for Nike, could never have been predicted when she started her career in 1988 and the apartheid regime was still in power.

"It's been a phenomenal journey," she says, reflecting on her career and the changes that have transformed her country.

"The black empowerment policies put in place by the government have allowed many people to play a part in the economy and you can see that the companies that are taking part in that policy are also growing," she says.

When asked to explain the challenges she faced in reaching the top, she replies: "It wasn't that I worked harder than other people. That would not be fair to them. It has been tough as a black person, not only for myself, but for all black people."

And then, wearing her sociologist's hat (her first degree was in social sciences at the University of Swaziland) and reflecting on her upbringing in Soweto, she explains the size of the challenge: "You find yourself in an environment that is obviously foreign to the one you've grown up in. It's about managing the dynamics in a work environment that may not be completely comfortable to you rather than your ability to work doubly hard. It was your innate ability to cope with this that got you through."

By contrast, the same agency's creative group head and copywriter Zwelakhe Tshabangu, 25, began his career five years ago and is already being groomed to succeed Ntshingila and run Ogilvy & Mather Johannesburg.

"The best thing in advertising now is to be young, black and talented. Clients are demanding black creatives on their teams because the consumer money is in black hands and it is a strong emerging market," he says.

His ambition to reach the top of the agency by the age of 30 is underscored by another aim: to make South African advertising more accurately reflect black culture and so put African advertising "on the map".

When asked if he would consider a career overseas, he replies: "I had dreams of working overseas but there's so much vibe and buzz in this country I would be foolish to try to ply my trade elsewhere."


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