Limits to Suburbia

South African living conditions are improving so fundamentally and fast that we might think this most golden of times must eventually embrace everyone. But rapid progress for some can become a permanent lockout to others.

This paradox can happen in obvious ways (like when schooling fails) but also, less obviously, when the success of some people creates impassable barriers for others. Latter-day property prices in suburbia may be one such bar.

Even so, urbanisation drops population growth and the costs of business and state services. SA’s last census has us as mostly urban – something that would have flummoxed apartheid’s 20th century planners; never mind the assorted Boer farmers and mining foragers of Joburg’s birth in 1886.

Just 127 years later, notes Gordon Institute of Business Science lecturer Kerry Chipp, the greater Gauteng urban sprawl is about to become one of the world’s ten largest. Statistics SA records housing units in Gauteng doubling since 1996.

Understanding the implications is important to any business. Given that its publications tend to be locally-focussed, media group Caxton CTP has a division called the Newspaper Advertising Bureau (NAB) that tracks urban demographic and consumer trends. For its part, The Citizen is exceptional to Caxton in being national. But in recent years it has also given the group something else of inestimable long-term value – becoming the audited daily with the most black male middle class readers. The importance of this part of society is obvious – and now there’s a glimpse of their approaching pre-eminence.

With consumer insights described by Peter Langschmidt, MD of independent market research company Echo, as “the country’s best”, the NAB has released results of a sample of nearly 30 000 urban people. These tell of breakneck expansion of the black suburban middle class in just the past five years.

In that short time, these new suburban pioneers have gone from 9% to 31% of households in Pretoria’s affluent eastern suburbs; from 53% of Midrand households to 62%; from a third to a half of Kempton Park; from 14% to 43% in Centurion, the former Verwoerdburg. This pattern is repeated across the country, from Polokwane to Nelspruit to Berea to Milnerton.

So, not the unchecked squatter invasions of pre-1994 fantasy, nor the Zimbabwe-style brigandage of the past decade. Surely we are witness to an unstoppable and reassuring expansion of the propertied classes?

Maybe not, warns University of the Witwatersrand professor and head of the Gauteng City Region Observatory, David Everatt: “Suburban deracialisation is very important and to be welcomed. But experience in America and elsewhere shows how quickly racial exclusivity recurs – blacks move into an area, so whites move out”.

He then points to a longer term barrier to ever-burgeoning suburbs , noting an economic “severe strain” marker used by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development: “When the median suburban house price is five times the average monthly household income, people can’t afford to buy their way into suburbia. In Gauteng, the median suburban house price is 22 times the median average monthly household income.
“The poor are being locked into apartheid’s townships, as are an aspirant middle class of teachers, nurses and public servants. They’re faced with forever settling for an RDP house. They have reason to be very unhappy”.

– Paul Pereira (first published in The Citizen, 11 July 2013)