BMW is a status symbol for young South Africans

Black buyers of new luxury cars help push auto sales to record level


Johannesburg, South Africa -- When Nomzamo Fihla decided she needed a new car that would be more reliable than her balky Volkswagen, she joined the huge wave of black South Africans pushing car sales - and especially sales of luxury models - to record heights.

Fihla, an operations manager in her 20s at a government call center, eventually decided on a jet-black, $40,000 BMW. It is much like her boyfriend's. And much like the prized status symbol of thousands of other black South Africans.

"I just like the way I feel when I'm driving that car," said Fihla, who bought her car at a black-owned dealership. "I can't explain it. It does everything I need it to do."

Eleven years after the arrival of democracy here, black South Africans now account for at least a quarter of the country's sales of new cars, a fivefold increase from the early 1990s.

Well-off black South Africans, while still a tiny minority in a country where half the population of 44 million live in poverty, can afford high-end models in part because of policies that opened doors to jobs and other opportunities formerly reserved for whites.

A study by South Africa's Standard Bank found that blacks account for 14 percent of the households in the country's highest income bracket, up from 6 percent in the past seven years.

"The emerging market has emerged," said Ronnie Watson, head of WesBank, the country's top auto finance company. "They're enjoying the fruits of their way, if I can put it that way."

The new buyers also are reshaping the country's car-crazed culture more in their own image.

The current issue of GQ Cars (motto: "the magazine with drivestyle") features on its cover the black soccer star Lucas Radebe leaning against a BMW M5. The headline shouts, "Black Magic." Even the popular nickname for BMW says much about how the German brand is viewed by some in the black community: Black Man's Wish.

BMW, which advertises in newspapers and magazines aimed at black readers, expects black South Africans to account for a majority of its sales in the "not too distant future," said Richard Carter, a company spokesman. The brand accounts for 7 percent of car sales here, more than four times its market share in the United States.

"BMW is an aspirational vehicle," Carter said. "It's athletic, a statement of achievement, it's all those things young and mid-level achievers strive for. And young and mid-level achievers in this country are primarily not white at the moment."

Joburg City Auto in downtown Johannesburg is the region's only black-owned BMW dealership, and 70 percent of its customers are black.

Two factors helping increase car sales are that many professional jobs come with generous car allowances, and that interest rates in recent years have fallen by about half. But at Joburg City Auto, customers are also using their new buying power.

"What you're seeing is a catch-up phenomenon," said co-owner Ciko Thomas, sitting in the dealership's boardroom. His customers are typically black professionals, equally divided between men and women and in their late 20s or 30s.

It's hard to know why South Africa became so car-mad, but people in the business believe it grew out of the need for reliable vehicles for traversing the country's long distances, and out of the lack of mass transit.

Among blacks, the desire for high-end cars is not restricted to the rising moneyed class.

In the hardscrabble Katlehong township east of Johannesburg, Mpostoli Dlamini buys wrecked BMWs from insurers to rebuild them and sell them at a profit.

"Everybody likes BMW," said Dlamini, dressed in a blue workman's uniform. "There are two cars: BMW and others. BMW has got style. And it does what you want it to do as a car."

BMW began manufacturing cars here in 1974 and continued operations through the apartheid era even as American brands pulled out to comply with economic sanctions imposed to press the white minority government to ease apartheid.

BMW won the favor of many black South Africans, said Carter, the company spokesman, by paying its workers better than most firms and by supporting better housing and education for blacks.

Now, it's common to hear people say Mercedes are for older people. BMW "is preferred by youngsters," said Dlamini.

Mercedes-Benz spokesman Richard Sloman said the average age of Mercedes buyers is dropping from "45-plus" since the introduction of a new "entry-level" model priced at about $38,000. He said Mercedes is attracting "up-and-coming, fairly influential black business people."

But the quest for the latest car may be as much a sign of insecurity as success.

"Unfortunately with a lot of guys, it's what defines them," said Siphiwe Mpye, editor of Blink, a glossy monthly geared to young professional black men. "You strip away the cars, take away the clothes, and you find quite an insecure person who actually doesn't know who they are."

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