Last June, a crowd outside Durban’s Regional court was treated to a moment that illuminates an era. It involved none of the ingredients usually recognized as newsworthy in Africa’s Rainbow Nation. No Mandelas attended, President Jacob Zuma was absent, and neither AIDS nor apartheid got a mention. Yet, curiously, it touched on almost all these elements.
The crowd had gathered for the arrival of local businesswoman Shauwn Mpisane, who is facing multiple charges of tax evasion on the state contracts won by her cleaning and housing company. The flamboyant lifestyle of Shauwn and S’bu, her husband, features regularly in South Africa’s tabloid press, so some sort of show was expected. As she strode toward the courtroom, all eyes immediately zeroed in on her heel-less, gravity-defying platform shoes, deconstructionist follies in a startling shade of turquoise. Lady Gaga, the media reported, has an identical pair, and they cost a cool $3,750.
I drove past the couple’s villa in the northern suburb of La Lucia shortly before that fashion parade—and can testify that it is in keeping with her shoes. Dwarfing its neighbors in Durban’s version of Beverly Hills, the villa is an idiosyncratic, tusked construction that had leapt from drawing board to street, the architect’s vision unclouded by any “Hang on, couldn’t we go for something a bit cheaper?” queries. Black-clad security guards, semiautomatics at the ready, were perched at the front gate and at the back. One had to assume that the white Maserati Shauwn had given S’bu on his fortieth birthday—license plate sbu—was parked safely inside, with the pair of matching Lamborghinis South Africa’s revenue service had seized but later returned.
Whatever the eventual outcome of the trial, Durban’s blingiest couple personify a chapter in South Africa’s development that, depending on your race, social class, and experience, triggers either a rush of blood to the temples, a sad shake of the head, or the righteous burn of vindication.
Apartheid ended in 1990. To universal relief, Africa’s pariah state averted civil war, established itself as a respected regional peacemaker, and joined the BRICS group of emerging economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). Nearly half of the population was born in a free country, with no direct experience of the Group Areas Act, pass laws, or the other legislation that prompted Nelson Mandela (now ninety-four and in fragile health) to take on a racist state. But despite the end of white rule, despite the vast investment in infrastructure and state benefits by the ANC (African National Congress), South Africa remains one of the world’s most unequal societies. A prosperous black upper and middle class have emerged but remain small and umbilically linked to the ruling party.
In the days of apartheid, travelers to South Africa tended to stick to certain well-worn grooves—the Kruger National Park, the Garden Route, the Blue Train. Today visitors, like the locals, enjoy the freedom to wander more widely and to ponder questions that transcend race. Such as: How does a society whose revolutionary heroes championed economic redistribution as they shivered in Robben Island's gray prison cells cope with the new elite's flamboyant displays of wealth?
My trip to Durban, part of a three-city tour of the country, was prompted by curiosity at the flashy hedonism I'd seen portrayed on South African Web sites. The designer-suited former comrades, the soap opera stars showing off their Louboutins, the guests flown in by private jet for champagne receptions—coupled with constant exposés of financial scandals—call to mind another Socialist system grappling with the temptations of unfettered capitalism: Putin's Russia.
Government critics—not only press and opposition politicians but longstanding members of the ANC—blame Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), a post-apartheid affirmative action policy that obliges South African companies to offer equity stakes to members of the country's black majority. It was vital to draw the excluded into an economy dominated by whites and Indians, they agree. But BEE also created a class of parasitic operators whose wealth is leveraged on political connections, and who neither create nor innovate but certainly know how to party.
Once hailed as "black diamonds," the emerging black elite are now labeled "tenderpreneurs"—a less respectful pun on the tenders, or state contracts, that have enriched so many. When Willie Hofmeyr, former head of the Special Investigating Unit, revealed in 2011 that $3.4 billion goes missing each year from the government's procurement budget, many considered it an indictment of tenderpreneurs, although bureaucratic incompetence was also cited as a factor.
The president is widely seen as the phenomenon's personification. It isn't only that Zuma was facing major corruption charges until shortly before he took the job in 2009. "Six wives, more than twenty children—that's self-indulgence," snorted Moeletsi Mbeki, businessman and political economist. "Zuma is the acme of bling, and the message he sends out is one of total excess."
Some South Africans take the long view, seeing the flash and cash as a stage a young society must inevitably go through. "Look, every country has its nouveau riche— just look at British footballers," says Thebe Ikalafeng, the founder of Brand Africa and many other prominent marketing initiatives. Others sense an administration that has lost its way. For them, the August showdown at a platinum mine in Marikana—where police killed thirty-four miners striking for better pay—was an inevitable explosion, a warning of what will come if the divide between this new group of black haves and the perennial have-nots continues to widen.
Durban, the chief port and largest city of KwaZulu-Natal Province, seemed a natural place to start my trip. While South Africa's first two black presidents belonged to the Xhosa aristocracy, Zuma, a former goatherd, is a Zulu. I was curious to see what reward the province had claimed in exchange for the political support that powered its local hero to the summit. My arrival coincided with a newspaper feature detailing just how many government contracts were being channeled Durban's way.
King Shaka International Airport sits in a wind-ruffled green sea of cane, the sugar plantations Mahatma Gandhi's Indian ancestors were brought in by the British colonialists to harvest. It seemed strangely empty. This, I was told, is normal. Locals regard the airport as one of several white elephant projects approved ahead of the World Cup South Africa hosted in 2010. Another was Durban's stunning sports stadium, which resembles, with its unfurled white sails, a schooner about to set off across the Indian Ocean.
Benedict Xolani Dube—who runs Xubera, a local think tank—had offered to show me around. But when I said my mission was to watch Durbanites at play, he was dismayed. "Zulu culture is conservative, very churchgoing and family-oriented. Durban is a sleepy city. People who make it big here go to Jozi"—Johannesburg—"to play."
Dube had a habit I have learned to associate with South African drivers. Braced for possible carjackers, they never come to a complete stop at traffic lights, slowing instead to an imperceptible crawl—creating a sense of hovering indecision. The tactic may be warranted. Vibrant in daytime, downtown Durban turns as threatening as Gotham City at night. In the morning, I wove my way through schoolchildren and students flirting and chatting on the baroque steps of City Hall as I headed into the museum, which tracks the history of local resistance to colonial rule. There was no sign of them come sunset. Light streamed from the occasional metal-barred liquor shop, but it did nothing to dispel the skittering shadows. Once-chic hotels and apartments were peeling and shuttered; the clothes in shop windows were reminiscent of the 1970s. With the exception of one hatchet-faced white woman, the only people on the litter-strewn street were black.
"It used to be so nice here," said Dube, sighing. "But since the end of apartheid, thousands of blacks flock to the public beach each December, and there's a lot of sleeping rough. The white businesses abandoned their premises for the mall in Umhlanga and luxury suburbs like Ballito." Congestion and a shortage of parking probably played a part in the exodus, but locals complain bitterly about the broken bottles and the crime that come with the surge of Christmas revelers.
We fled in our turn—to Florida Road in the Morningside suburb, which has some of Durban’s oldest colonial buildings, their delicate white wooden verandas framed by palms. The bars were heaving, and refreshingly, it was a mixed crowd. “This is where people who don’t think of themselves as black, just as members of the elite, hang out,” said Dube. A bevy of white girls tottered down the street in the familiar crouch caused by a combination of nine-inch heels and skintight minidresses. At the Spiga d’Oro, famously patronized by Zuma’s jailed business partner Schabir Shaik, every table was taken.
For more of this article, please see the original at Condé Nast Traveler.