Sandtonista

15 March 2010

I’ve mentioned before that Sandton, this northern suburb of Johannesburg where we are staying, is often referred to as “Africa’s richest square mile”. There’s money here – big global businesses, malls with all the international brands, luxury cars and spas and hotels, wealthy residential estates with security guards and four BMWs and numerous staff (with their own staff quarters). The lifestyle of the Sandtonista means that I still pay NYC prices for breakfast – mostly because I’m too traffic-avoiding, or hungry, or lazy to drive elsewhere. (Believe me, I’m more than appalled that I just used “lazy” and “drive” in the same sentence, since the cafe where I’m currently breakfasting is about the same distance as the walk I take every day from our NYC apartment to the subway. But I drove here….lazily.)

When in Rome…

Given that I’m rapidly adjusting to the Sandtonista lifestyle (minus any designer outfit), I guess I shouldn’t have been so shocked to open the March 2010 issue of South Africa’s Shape Magazine and find this article:

“Looking after your domestic”, the “your” so overtly possessive, so powerful, so white. The picture emphasizing the point – you’re white, your domestic is black.

Yet, here in Sandton, this picture is accurate. Ever since the “white flight” from downtown during and just after the struggle years, a largely white elite has been thriving in the northern suburbs, with the black majority filling the economic stratum of supporting service roles. It’s just the way it is, I suppose one could say. Isn’t the magazine just being relevant? Shouldn’t I just be thankful for all of the employment the sector creates?

The article offered some suggestions on how to be a good employer to your domestics, from health insurance to vacation to pension funds. It reiterated the laws around monthly minimum wage: 1442.86 Rand, which is 7.40 Rand/Hour for domestics working more than 27 hours per week.

Let me put it this way: I’m on my second cappuccino – 18 Rand (each). I had one of the cheaper breakfasts on the menu – 50 Rand. At today’s foreign exchange rates, 7.40 Rand is exactly 1.00 USD. A dollar an hour to wash my dishes, clean my house, make my dinner, look after my children, do my laundry!

I have a Master’s degree in International Business. I know better than to flip out at mere exchange rates. One has to look at the bigger picture, the pricing parity for what 7.40 Rand can buy in the places the domestics return to at the end of the day – the places they call home, where they buy food, pay rent, take their children to school. I assume Diana, who cleans our apartment each weekday, does not pay 18 Rand for a cappuccino in Soweto where she lives with her children. But, honestly, I don’t know for sure. I don’t know how much she makes, or how much she pays in rent, or if she has money to spare.

All I know is that shelling out 100 Rand for breakfast in Sandton while reading about the hourly wages of domestics makes me feel unsettled. It highlights the enormous disparity between the rich and the poor here in South Africa, the former who are still predominantly white, just like the picture in the magazine. And just like me, an accidental Sandtonista. Ugh.

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3 Responses to “Sandtonista”

  1. andy wanner Says:

    UGH!!.. So what IS SOCIAL JUSTICE?

  2. aubreybishai Says:

    Disparity like this is not unique to South Africa, of course. The gap between the world’s rich and poor is a global phenomenon. It’s just so striking when it’s in your face – like it was over my breakfast reading today.

    Social, economic and cultural trends take time to adjust. But bit by bit, that is happening here. Nowadays there many empowered black men and women at the upper echelons of society, living in the very estates with the BMWs etc. that I described above. When you consider that nearly 80% of the population is black, and the white population has had such a “head start” under apartheid, it makes sense as to why this disparity would take time to even out, and why economically speaking the “domestics” level of society would still be predominantly black.

    I wonder if social justice IS playing out, just not overnight. Time will tell. It’s amazing – if at times unsettling – to be experiencing firsthand this country in transition.

  3. Tarf McUrah Says:

    Well you see that is the unfortunate thing, this Social, economic and cultural trend will never even out (@ this rate). South Africa is technically a democracy (representing the interests of the majority) but that’s as far as democracy goes in Africa it’s technical.

    You might have noticed something else while in Sandton, all the companies, hotels restaurants, clothing labels are western, even some of the ones with African names and identities are western owned too. My point? well that 18 Rand cappuccino you bought, the revenue for it after paying the “black” African waiter his minimum wage and his “white” boss a hefty BMW-buying bonus and a couple of taxes the profit ends up smack in a Western bank account. Thanks to that cappuccino made and bought in Africa, schools roads and health care in America are improved, infact perfected. Where does that live the African?

    It’s true that some Africans are moving in to fill the middle and upper class, the only problem is that they are only entering the fray as workers not entrepreneurs. You will be gobsmacked if you learnt just how much of South Africa’s GDP is expatriated to foreign bank accounts. The solution in my opinion? Imagine if Diana’s son was given a chance to “own” South Africa’s very own largest hotel group, Where will Diana, her community, South Africa, Africa be right now? FYI Africa’s largest charity was founded by Econet wireless, a 100% (black) owned company. that is what happens when you give Africans (black or white) an oportunity to fix their own destiny.

    The only thing Africans need to succeed is to get their Africa back. The problem is that a lot of the foreign based people who own/run some of these enterprises (Sandtonistas I’m sorry to say) when they hear African empowerment mentioned, they quickly and angrily dismiss it as racial rhetoric used as an excuse to plunder their hard earned fortunes. I’ll live you with a very sad statistic. Because the United States relies on cheaper foreign imports of food from Africa (which is sold to them by their African subsidiaries at lower than cost prices) Each year in the US about 82% of food is destroyed, wasted or used for none feeding puposes thus keeping food prices artificially high, all this at a time when Africans (and even some Americans) are dying of starvation. I do not mean to be cynical but these are the facts! Thanking for breaking the silence anyway and I will be more than pleased to share more on this topic


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