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Soweto takes pride in its new wheels

Eleven years after the end of apartheid, a car show in Soweto reflects economic mobility in the South African township.
Salesman Zwelie Ncube tries to convince Floyd Tshabalala, 42, to buy the Chrysler Crossfire at the Soweto Motor Show. 
Salesman Zwelie Ncube tries to convince Floyd Tshabalala, 42, to buy the Chrysler Crossfire at the Soweto Motor Show.  Craig Timberg / The Washington Post
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-- Some people whistled in admiration. Some made revving sounds. Some just gazed at the metallic blue Chrysler Crossfire displayed one recent afternoon -- its hood open, hot-rod style -- in the Protea Gardens mall, here in South Africa's largest and most historic township.

Few onlookers had the means to plunk down $62,000 for a two-seat convertible with little practical use. But the presence of such a car, and the staging of Soweto's first-ever motor show, stirred a palpable sense of pride in a community that was once known for its fierce uprising against apartheid but that is now being recognized for the clout of its growing consumer class.

"I was so surprised when I came here. It's just like in town," said Joyce Nemakhavhani, 49, a teacher, watching as a friend perched in the seat of a purple PT Cruiser. "Now we want even more shopping."

There have been many setbacks in the 11 years since the end of apartheid. Joblessness, crime, stubborn racial inequities and a rampant new disease, AIDS, have taken the luster off the smooth transition to multiracial democracy.

Rise of a black middle class
Yet South Africa is also experiencing the rise of a black middle class, one that is increasingly being courted by clothiers, restaurant chains and supermarkets. And although Soweto has just a single auto dealership, other businesses are gradually beginning to locate here and in the other densely populated townships where most blacks still live.

Protea Gardens mall is one sign of this progress. It opened this year as the biggest, most stylish shopping center in Soweto, a township built a century ago outside Johannesburg to house black workers and their families while keeping them as invisible as hundreds of thousands of people could be.

Today the area's population is estimated at between 1.5 million and 4 million. Overall, 79 percent of South Africa's 44 million people are black.

Except for the customers' skin color, the mall is virtually indistinguishable from those in the posh, mostly white suburbs north of Johannesburg, a half-hour drive from here. The Chrysler exhibit was set among a kitchenware store, a curtain shop and a cluster of banks, each opening onto an expanse of polished stone flooring.

Yet the display of vehicles at the Soweto Motor Show produced far more longing than buying. Police officer Duncan Radebe, 41, sat in a Chrysler Grand Voyager with his service revolver strapped to his right hip. He rattled off a series of questions to a salesman, Zwelie Ncube, asking about the engine size, air bags, gas mileage, fuel capacity, and even about the deposit needed to take the minivan home.

Finally, a fellow officer blurted, "You can't afford this, man!"

As Radebe walked away, the father of three said he had reached the same conclusion. His family would have to continue cramming into their 1984 Volkswagen Golf rather than spending $60,000 on a new, fully loaded minivan.

"If I'm working hard," he added, "I might be promoted to the next rank. Then maybe I could buy one like this."

The car business is booming in South Africa, as is the economy in general, and a growing number of blacks are buying their first or second vehicle. A decade ago, about 5 percent of all car purchasers were black; today, blacks account for about one-third of auto sales. Nationwide, car sales increased by 22 percent last year and again by 26 percent between January and October.

License to freedom
At Protea Gardens, many of those who paused to gaze at the Chrysler display reminisced about how their first cars -- generally small and secondhand -- changed their lives, freeing them from arduous commutes in packed minibuses, expanding their social lives and allowing their children to participate in extracurricular activities at school. It was, many here said, a first solid step into the middle class.

"We never had such things," said Dumela Shibambu, 50, relaxing in the driver's seat of the PT Cruiser, her grandson by her side. "A car is not a luxury," she added, "it's a necessity."

But despite the growing demand, the motor show organizer, Wren Mast-Ingle, said dealers at first did not want to participate. Of the roughly 1,500 dealerships in South Africa, just three have black owners, he said. Many told him that it was too dangerous to bring their cars to Soweto, or that there wouldn't be enough buyers.

"I had to virtually armlock people to come in," he said.

To encourage participation, Mast-Ingle said he took a rough survey in the parking lots of Soweto, noting the kinds of vehicles residents drove. He found that 25 percent were two years old or newer, and that 5 percent -- more than expected -- were luxury cars such as BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes.

Drawing on customer research conducted by Protea Gardens and a second mall, Mast-Ingle also learned that 30 percent of their shoppers earned $4,600 a year or more -- enough, he figured, to buy at least a used car.

Eventually, 11 dealers signed up, and the show's organizers estimated that nearly 100,000 shoppers saw the cars at two Soweto malls one recent weekend. Initial sales were slow, but many dealers reported long lists of potential buyers.

They included Floyd Tshabalala, 42, who owns a fleet of taxis. He walked up to the Chrysler display wearing designer jeans, black leather shoes and a gold chain that was visible through his open-neck shirt. After sitting awhile in the Crossfire, he said he might be able to manage the payments if he traded in one of his BMWs.

"Let me sleep over it," Tshabalala told the salesman. "I've worked hard. Sometimes one needs to spoil oneself."

Debt fears
Victor Coutries, 64, a lean-boned runner wearing a black T-shirt, was not so easily tempted. He has spent much of his career overseeing a bank's repossession division, and for the past 20 years he has driven a used Mazda 323 that was repossessed from its original owner.

He said he was amazed to see so many South Africans, of all skin colors, become burdened by debt. He expressed concern about the country's rising tide of consumerism, in which desire for flashy cars and designer clothes appeared to be replacing the higher call of the struggle against apartheid. Yet he too seemed happy to see Soweto humming with commerce.

"Look at these shops," Coutries said, gesturing around the clean, well-lit mall. "For all these last 300 years, they never came to townships. Now they are busy, Monday to Monday."

Some shoppers were well past the browsing stage and ready to pay substantial sums for smart-looking vehicles. Margaret Mahlaba, 42, a mother of three and director of business development at a major bank, was taken by a $37,000 black Jeep Wrangler at the Protea Gardens display.

Mahlaba told the salesman she was ready to trade in her stodgy Nissan sedan for the Jeep; he asked her to bring it by in the morning.

"If I come tomorrow, I take the car tomorrow," she said with a touch of sass.

"No," the salesman replied, starting to explain that the paperwork would take time.

"I'm joking. I'm joking," Mahlaba said, standing beside the Jeep with a smile that suggested her yearning was anything but a joke. "I need the car. It's beautiful."