A black man's unpaved road to S. Africa's middle class

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Back in the old South Africa, during the dark days of Nelson Mandela's imprisonment, a gregarious black man named William Khazamula Ngobeni was in his own kind of prison.

After working for 17 years as a bank messenger, he earned just $55 a month. One day in 1989, his white boss exploded in rage. "You think because you've worked here for so long you amount to something," he yelled. "Well, you don't, and you never will." With that, he kicked his employee. Mr. Ngobeni decided not to go back the next day. There was no severance, no pension, no recourse.

But this is the new South Africa. Mr. Mandela's African National Congress won nearly 70 percent of the vote in elections last week. And Ngobeni - "Willy" to his friends - now owns a growing business that shuttles tourists around the country. He marvels at the new opportunities. "We grew up knowing we could only work for a white man," he says. "Owning a business was not for a black man." Until now.

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As the nation celebrates its first decade of democracy next week, his rise from expend- dable messenger boy to budding entrepreneur is emblematic of the millions of blacks who've scrambled into the middle class. But 22 million of the country's 44 million citizens still live below the official poverty line, highlighting how South Africa's struggle is now an economic one - against the oppression of poverty.

"We've come this far," Ngobeni says, spreading his thumb and forefinger an inch apart. "We have this far to go," he says, raising his arm above his head.

He - and many others - have made big steps toward economic freedom. This is a man who began life in a grass-roofed hut with his parents and six siblings in rural South Africa. Every night, as the sun went down, they didn't know whether they'd eat dinner.

These days, Ngobeni sports a faux Rolex and an ever-ringing cellphone. Striped polo shirts cover his prosperous belly. On a tour of his suburban house, he shows off the addition to the kitchen and living room he's been building. And he has a favorite keepsake: a tattered plane ticket to London, which made him the first in his family to travel abroad.

No deed, no minivan

Many blacks have seen similar success. Between 1990 and 2000, per capita income among blacks rose 28 percent, according to Carel van Aardt, a researcher at the University of South Africa. For whites, it rose just 2 percent. Between 1996 and 2001, the number of black technicians and junior professionals jumped 180 percent, according to census data. The ranks of black legislators, senior officials, and managers swelled 44 percent.

Even for those who've made it, it hasn't been easy. In 1996, Ngobeni was just a Johannesburg taxi driver with a dream. His family was living in a two-bedroom apartment on the edge of the city's worst neighborhood. Razor wire encircled their building's entrance. He scratched to make the $150 monthly rent.

He soon decided there was money to be made from the legions of tourists arriving in Johannesburg. After taking a tour-guide course, he went to a bank for a loan to buy a minivan. The cool response: Show us the deed to your house, and we'll give you a loan. Since blacks had only recently been allowed to own property, he figures the white bankers knew he wouldn't have a deed. He was reduced to carting tourists in his ancient blue Opel sedan. On slow days he would even round up his family and take them on tours. "He loves showing people around," says Johanna, Willy's wife.

Soon he saved up enough money to buy a rattletrap minivan. "I missed so many jobs because it broke down on my way there," he remembers, laughing. Busted fan belts. Overheated engine. So many problems. He did finally buy a small house - and marched triumphantly to the bank, deed in hand. But they would only give him a loan for 50 percent of the price of a new van - at a 25-percent interest rate. After badgering them every day for two weeks, they finally relented, giving him a loan for 75 percent of the price.

Even still, he moans, by the time the loan is retired, "I'll pay for the car three times." But now his company - Willy's Tours and Safaris - is growing. He's got three Volkswagen vans and is saving up for a 20-seater bus.

Good ideas but no funding

Others have risen up in different ways. The government's Black Economic Empowerment program is a voluntary affirmative-action plan for corporations. It has transferred much wealth to the top 12 million blacks, says Sampie Terreblanche, emeritus economics professor at the University of Stellenbosch. But corporations have "no responsibility to the unemployed," so the 22 million living in poverty haven't been helped much. Neither has the ANC helped, he says, because it's become "a middle-class party." He expects class-based unrest to grow in coming years.

Ngobeni agrees there's a problem. "So many people have good ideas," he says, driving among Soweto's tin shacks. "They make a business plan, and go to the bank - but they can't get funding." He figures low-interest government loans would be a big boost.

But his 20-year-old son, Platus, figures anyone who works as hard as his dad will succeed. As a tourism-management major in college, he has big plans for Dad's business: "a fleet of big buses" and investing in resort properties.

With youthful impatience, he dismisses those who bemoan the lack of opportunity. "They can sit back and say, 'Oh, the legacy of apartheid is keeping me down.' " He says that's ridiculous. "There's been 10 years of freedom, for goodness sake."

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