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Money, Africans and the art of conversation

A friend of mine told me the other day that he does not like to socialise with the new African middle class.

“I find it difficult to have a decent, soul-nourishing conversation with them,” he said.

He went on to add: “All they talk about is government tenders, contracts, money and how to make more money.” I could not agree with him more.

For some time now I have been disturbed by the lack of meaningful conversation that appears to afflict social company in the African community.

Thinking people deserve a high level of engagement from high-flyers, especially our politicians, business people, professionals, academics and (wait for it … ) church leaders.

It is increasingly difficult to find someone who commands a great deal of respect simply because of what comes out of their mouths. There are far too few people, especially in the so-called African middle class, who have mastered the art of conversation.

We all know that what makes a person is not what they put into their mouth as they indulge in sumptuous meals in luxury and splendour, instead, it is what comes out of their mouth that gives you a sense of the person’s character and what they are about in life.

But the tendency among Africans is for any social engagement to soon degenerate into status, position, cars, fashion, money and everything else that money can buy.

This is what tempts some of us to believe that African people are, largely, empty of wisdom, knowledge and information. Of course, it is easy to say that African people, especially the elite, are not the only ones who obsess about money and material.

It may be true that this is a universal problem in a money-worshiping world, if you like, as you find the same pattern of low intellectual and social engagement in other communities.

But it’s time that someone did something about the celebration of ignorance and stupidity among Africans who seem to think that money is the only thing that makes the world go round.

The Africans, especially, need to go back to the basics where they can explore the deeper question of who they are and where they are taking this country with their new-found money-worshiping ways.

For a greater part of the last 16 years since the dawn of so-called freedom and democracy, the only thing African middle-class people think and talk about is government tenders, contracts and, of course, money, money and more money.

This has even filtered into branches of political organisations where people now fight over positions simply because that is the quickest route to get-rich-quick schemes.

For better or for worse, this is what is responsible for the moral degeneration, corruption and loss of vision that now plagues the most promising nation on earth.

It is not difficult to gain insight into how African people have discarded any value in wisdom, knowledge and information, for instance.

In fact, it is true that, now, many Africans are more interested in clothes, shoes, cars and other forms of material progress than in ideas, books or how to make this the greatest nation on the continent, for instance.

People may tell you, for instance, that there is now a big increase in the number of book clubs.

But these are part of a new culture of blatant material display where people invite each other to their homes not to discuss ideas or literature, but to show off material accumulation.

Creative fora have been transmogrified into social networks to discuss more ideas to make money.

What you’re likely to find is people who are more concerned about what benefits money has brought them, what they are serving for lunch, where the eating utensils have been bought, the quality of furniture in their homes and the clothing label on their back.

Without being cynical, this is what has convinced some people that there is no genuine interest in ideas or books among those who belong to book clubs or political parties, for example.

The thing is, all of a sudden, African interests have become material and common place.

In a way, it is unexpected that people who were prophetic visionaries with high standards of idealism for a new society can, overnight, degenerate into philistines.

Just like my friend, I have found myself asking: “What is the purpose of African life, now? What do Africans want?”

My friend’s concern has been aroused by the desire and love of money, money and more money, especially from government tenders and contracts. And the money is rarely used to improved material conditions among the poor.

There is a relative absence of intellectual engagement and stimulation.

If you walk into any café, restaurant, coffee shop, bar or home, you are most likely to find groups of people who are talking about how to make the next deal or what they would do if they won the Lotto.

I guess it is a good thing that some people are, increasingly, profoundly bored by the African social and cultural experience where people spend the entire time speaking about material things, especially money.

You can spend 10 years without seeing a colleague, friend or acquaintance. But the moment they see you, all they are interested in is your address, your position, the car you drive and, of course, the size of your bank account.

This obsession with superficial issues has been confused with genuine concern for how a fellow is doing in life to measure success and progress.

But the focus is not on empathy, intimate personal interest and knowledge of what makes you tick as a person.

We must problematise this tendency of Africans’ wishes to become part of globalisation and want the same success as other people, especially whites.

In Africa, money should not have a privileged status over history, wisdom, knowledge and information.

We love and live for humanity.



  1. Tebogo Tebogo 26 August 2009

    “For a greater part of the last 16 years since the dawn of so-called freedom and democracy, the only thing African middle-class people think and talk about is government tenders, contracts and, of course, money, money and more money.” – Are you serious, Sandile?

  2. Siphiwo Siphiwo Siphiwo Siphiwo 26 August 2009

    Malume Memela

    Always dispatching fascinating stuff. Whether that is ‘material’ or ‘immaterial’, you’re the real legend.

    Africans have fallen to the same trap of capitalism: wealth, selfishness, materialism, greed, egoistic and more selfishness.

    Shouldn’t we be going a bit ‘leftish’, now?

  3. Sipho Sipho 26 August 2009

    wayishaya esikhonkwaneni. when i read the article, i thought there are people around me who would like to engage in an educational, inspiring and elevating conversations. to tell you the truth, i no longer engage with my friends because the issue of easy money always comes up even when talking about sports, literature and entertainment (not beer drinking). Thanks for a wonderful reminder that money is not the be all and end all in the world.

  4. Gugu Dube Gugu Dube 26 August 2009

    I can try and understand the desire by the author to get black people back on track in as far as self-development is concerned, the issue about conversational skills and the content thereof, the desire for more depth and wisdom from our people. But, honestly, can our people be blamed for this kind of behaviour? We have just acquired wealth and we are learning to live with it – yes, we may be a little obsessed over it, but with time this will pass. I just feel that as Blacks we need to refrain as much as possible in negative commentry about ourselves. Let’s engage in positive discourse. If there is a need to address matters within our ilk it can be done tasteful in a non-denigrating manner. No other people knock themselves as much as we do ourselves then we are surprised when we get no respect. I’m not saying sweep things under the rug no, I’m not saying turn a blind eye – I’m saying discuss these things in appropriate fora and MG is not such a space. We need to build a more positive image of our people – our youth needs to be able to get a sense of pride of being black, rich/wealthy. Rather, let us be role-models of appropriate behaviour and in this way even those that are behaving waywardly will be inspired to reflect and re-evaluate themselves and the manner in which they engage with the world. Be

  5. Beef Beef 26 August 2009

    indeed, Africans should eschew material wealth for higher and more noble virtues such as intelectual refinement and excellences of character, my my!! this does sound like an interesting discourse that Sandile would engage in, only if he stopped frequenting ‘cafes’ where patrons generally want to be left alone to discuss where the next inn is, since Gordhan is tightning the screws and Nomvula is sweeping Gauteng’s agencies. I do not think that there is a necessary contradiction. My interpretation of your article is that money makes Africans stupid, I can only imagine that envy makes us see green the things we otherwise wouldnt if we were in the money circle and laslty I think the is a general dearth of intelectual fervour everywhere.

  6. Mokgalaka Mokgalaka 26 August 2009

    Sandile once again you got it!

    The love of money is going to do a lot of damage to this country which for some years was trying to forge some kind of ubuntu.

    It’s all about cash everyday. No money, no friends, no money no talk. That is how they say it.

  7. Bout de Souffle Bout de Souffle 27 August 2009

    Maybe you’re just hanging out in the wrong places, and or have the wrong friends! There are lots of “African” (which I think in your article actually means Black) middle class folk who are doing and saying intelligent, constructive, challenging things. Publishing great magazines, making thought provoking films, working in NGO’s etc.

  8. warren oliphant warren oliphant 27 August 2009

    So true. I don’t know of any African philosopher, eminent scientist or nobel prize laureate in economics. I’m yearning for such people who look like me.We need ideas, to understand and ask the big questions that plague humanity, or the Africann continent for that matter. We need philosophical thinkers, historians, scientists and artists who will shape the future of African people. I’m tired of reading Shakespear to my children and telling them about Newton, Einstein, Brunel, and such people. Those people don’t look like them. To the political elites of SA, please won’t you start thinking about nurturing a new generation of deeper thinkers who understand that there is more to life than money. It should start with yourselves.

  9. Lynne Lynne 27 August 2009

    If a white person said this, you’d call them a racist.
    Maybe you just mix with the wrong Africans. Maybe you should expand your social circle from that ANC bunch. I know many intelligent, non-materialistic, book-reading, interesting Africans(from SA and elsewhere on the continent).
    Call me…I’ll introduce you…

  10. peter vlietstra peter vlietstra 27 August 2009

    I think you are referring to that portion of the “middle class” who have taken a short cut to riches, based on patronage, greed and a sense of entitlement. Surely there is another “middle class”, the back bone of society, based on a solid value system and who have achieved their position in society due to a proper education and an honest work ethic? I question the wisdom of a system where people can jump the queue in this way. It does not create real value in a society and discourages the more sustainable route to “middle class”.

  11. Lebogang Lebogang 27 August 2009

    Spot on. But some can argue that Afrikans have been seen over the generations as a people who have had their wealth taken from them and as a result suffered greatly: think Capitalist Nigger.

    therefore what is so wrong with a certain section of the Balck community concerning themselves with amassing wealth. We are not a homogenous group of people after all: We have academics, professionals etc

  12. Token Token 27 August 2009

    It further amazes me how this mentality is being subconciously instilled in the younger youth, now it is go to school to so you can get a good job that pays well, be nice to the right people, avoid people who are not as (financially) ambitious as you(we call these aboskhotheni, broke asses, lazy bumbs etc)

  13. KC KC 27 August 2009

    @ Gugu – excellently put. Mr Memela, while you are right about crass material display of money and possessions, this is not exclusive to Africans; it is a societal issue. In any event, who said you cannot talk intelligently about money? Perhaps it’s time to expand your social network.

  14. Warren Oliphant Warren Oliphant 27 August 2009

    @ Gugu Dube
    I’m perplexed by your concerns that blacks are overly critical, or perpetrating “negative commentry about ourselves” as you put it. Are you saying that what is being said by blacks themselves is untrue? that black politicians have shamed us, they stole from the public purse and betrayed the liberation struggle, betrayed the poor and have set a bad moral example for our youth. I don’t have to go into specifics (which i can do if u insist) but I know you’re an informed woman and you know what I’m talking about. If all of these things are true then why should we not speak out and condemn the profligacy, the looting of the public purse, the abuse of tender procedures, cronyism, nepotism etc. To remain silent is to collude with the perpetrators. Is that what you are advocating? An eminent British social reformer Edmund Burke once said that “All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing”. I’m a good man who wants to do something about the evil I see in society and it starts with speaking out. You say that the M&G is not the forum to discuss these things. Why do you say so, and where do you suggest is the right forum? Why are you reading the M&G then if you don’t see it as an appropriate forum.

  15. Craig Craig 27 August 2009

    This is human nature Sandile- Africans are not some special race…

  16. Khaya Khaya 27 August 2009

    “We have academics, professionals etc”

    Yes, we even have self-styled “critical creative intellectuals”!

  17. Joy-Mari Cloete Joy-Mari Cloete 27 August 2009

    Good grief, this is a racist ‘article’! And I agree with Lynn, Craig and Pieter: this does not apply to all black middle class people.

  18. Phindile M Phindile M 27 August 2009

    I had been schooling in Gauteng and I could’nt make friends in high school because all my classmates were so obsessed about conversations on fast cars, township best criminals and those who smoke mandrax or ganja most and go on to do horrendous things. Car hijacking, shoplifting and heists would be the subject the whole afternoon long.

  19. Mphatjie Mphatjie 27 August 2009

    Sandile, my friend, I like your columns but I have one reservation: why do you keep talking about 16 years of freedom when we are exactly 15 years and three months into freedom. You’ll talk about 16 years of freedom next year after April. Ok?

  20. Elle Elle 27 August 2009

    Amen ! The black middle class has absolutely no clue about real issues concerning our country and no substance . It makes you wonder if they understand the need to make a contribution back into the country . Probably don’t care anyway .

  21. mtutuzeli mtutuzeli 27 August 2009

    There is a time for everything under the sun. The time when people in a restaurant discuss money making schemes is the time for that and the time to play and converse is the time for that and anyone who doesn’t have a strong desire for money and its material trimmings these days should either give away all his/her possessions and find a cave in a mountain where he/she can live as a hermit on wild fruit and roots because, I think, unless people are prepared to do this, all the “yeah, yeah” is downright pretentious. The whole world is money and to survive you gotta have some of it. Or kanjani?

  22. Mark Robertson Mark Robertson 27 August 2009

    In fairness, this seems to be a South African thing across the board. Having lived and worked overseas, people here seem to be more interested in the car you drive and where you live than Europeans. In Germany and Scandinavia, plumbers and mechanics mix with lawyers and engineers. SA seems to have a lowbrow culture where learning and academia are not highly prized. The sad thing about the black aspirations specifically are their focus on state tenders. Simply put, the day we have a black Mark Shuttleworth or Richard Branson will be a day for rejoicing. Wealth has to be created, and the state simply siphons off wealth that would be better used elsewhere. The good news is there are some great black businessmen – the CEO of MTN is one – and the more black role models we have who like him are growing wealth throughout the whole of Africa, the better our chances are of breaking out of this mindset.

  23. Onkgopotse JJ Tabane Onkgopotse JJ Tabane 27 August 2009

    Mr Mamela!
    Well Articulated.

    This is what disturbes most about our country and the trajectory of public discourse.

    When you speak people say it matters why you so speak. ( Whose agenda do you serve etc) When people as a result of that intellectual intimidation retreat into their cocoons we then act suprised.

    Why should some of these people speak their minds if they are expetced only to tow the politically correct line when they do….so it has become easier to chat about how they can feed into the frenzy of what some in our country’s leadership spend their time doing.

    Look at the fiasco surrounding the terrible dispaly of wealth by the purchase of minesterial cars…was it really necessary to handle that matter so obvously insensitively in the face of such financial crisis? It says therefore the first thing in my mind when i get a new job is how am I going to flaunt it. So excited were some of the ministers that they went overboard

    It is this that makes us live beyond our means! All of us are guilty of it….because the measure of success has changed – what is your address, your car …otherwise u are not seen as successful!.

    What we all need is a new set of values to combat this. The fish rots from the head so as long as our country’s leadership dont lead by example you can just imagine what our children will begin to think.

  24. Siphiwo Siphiwo Siphiwo Siphiwo 27 August 2009

    Sick ‘n tired of dialogues about the torque, speed and engine capacity of a vehicle; about clothes brands; laptops; gadgets; cellphones; the ability of a car music system to make most noise than its counterpart; fancy headlights in vehicles; ability to purchase expensive newspapers & magazines.

    talk about money, money & money

  25. Ndwandwe Ndwandwe 27 August 2009

    @ Gugu Dube. I agree with you.

    The writer has made some important points for thought. However his criticism can, more correctly, be directed to that small portion of African’s with shallow interest only. To generalise and lambast an entire people based on such narrow analysis is distasteful. We African’s have our own ways of doing things but that does not mean we are all the same or should all be the same.

    For Sandile’s record, some of us still mingle with a lot of Africans of tall social standing. Perhaps this due to different social circles I move around which actually says a lot about me.
    Sandile is other you are tired of being stuck with people like yourself or you resent being African.

    My view of the truth about you article!

  26. Donald Donald 27 August 2009

    Hey guys.Perhaps you should read a book written by a black man about his own black people.The book is Capitalist Nigger , written by Chika Onyeani.In this book he basicaly tells his fellow black people to get of their lazy black asses and to stop blaming others for the black peoples woes.They should make this standard reading for all government officials and poloticians as well as in schools.Thier is nothing wrong with being a capatilist but stealing from you’re countrymen is just not on.And hey Gugu just because you’re people have just aquierd wealth is no excuse.

  27. Donald Donald 27 August 2009

    Oh by the way I bought the book at OR Tambo international on one of my trips into Africa.Their is alos another book written by a black journalist about his time in Africa which is also a very good read.Cant remeber the title but will see tommorow.

  28. pule pule 27 August 2009

    maybe its time you all revisit and take a hard long look at Pule Diphare’s seminal short documentary film ‘ Dance of the Graves. real food for thought.

  29. Khosi Khosi 27 August 2009

    I honestly think that theres a reason why God creates us differently. Imagine if we were to think the same do things the same way, life wouldn’t be as interesting as it is.

  30. haiwa tigere haiwa tigere 27 August 2009

    what a lot of misconceptions-Young upwardly mobile people will talk about money. If they did not I would be worried. all young people in the world will talk about cars money and girls.
    Have lived in the rural areas- all they talk about is crops ,cattle , goats and late rain.
    Take your pick
    Not all of us understand Eistein theory of relativity or whatever Professor Hawkins yaps about- black hole and crap-is that racist or what?
    ( see we are discussing something else already)

    But we know weather we talk about it or not you are not eating if you dont have money

  31. Monica Seeber Monica Seeber 27 August 2009

    Yes and no.What makes the black newly rich of South Africa any different from the newly rich anywhere else? Sandile’s knowledge of what goes on in the world must be pretty poor if he thinks South Africans are unique, exempt from the foibles of human nature. Does he need me to tell him that previously oppressed or deprived people EVERYWHERE flash their newly acquired wealth around, and have done throughout history? YOU try telling someone that for the sake of nation building he should forego the new Merc and get a bicycle instead, because I wouldn’t bother. Yes, there’s a lot of crass materialism around, but it’s certainly not confined to black people. When will Sandile learn that human nature is the same whether your skin is dark brown or pale beige? But if it bothers you so much, Sandile, maybe you need some new friends. After all, it is said that one knows a man by the company he keeps.

  32. Koolombo Koolombo 27 August 2009

    This is an interesting article Sandile, as much as I do agree with you, as well as the perspective of others above who do not, I also feel that by referring to “Africans” you mean “South Africans”. I encourage you to engage with more “Africans” rather than just “South Africans” and I think you might see things differently. There are a lot of Africans who have acquired wealth, have traveled the world, way before South Africa’s 16 year old independence and yet their focus and point of reference is more family and virtue oriented. The issue of the state of most African states is another topic on its own.

  33. Mark Robertson Mark Robertson 28 August 2009

    Dear Donald
    I think your phrase ‘lazy black asses’ is a bit insensitive. There are lazy and hard-working people of all races. The other book you are looking for is ‘Out of America’ by Keith B Richburg, an African American journalist.

  34. pete ess pete ess 28 August 2009

    I TOLD you you could become a GREAT AFRICAN CRITIC. Here you are. Speaking truth to power. Well done. We are going through a very interesting phase of our freedom. Instant wealth is over. Will we now see decency and thoughtfulness return as the economy slows, or will we see cruelty and a crackdown? The nouveau-riche are not usually blessed with empathy, I’m afraid.

  35. Sabelo Sabelo 28 August 2009

    Dear Africans, go out there and make money and secure your childrens future- I don’t know any bank that accepts ‘humanity’ as a currency. We should not make people feel ashamed of improving their financial status, however guard against putting material possession over human value and dignity. for me any business making money off government tenders is not ‘business’ at all, its a get reach quick scheme that dies with regime change.

    My expeirence as someone without money is that people always think money and earn it but never multiply it or use it wisely, often ours is not wealth but just a fat bank balance that shrinks as soon as your friend giving you tenders is investigated. I know of a person who was once an editor of the KZN Zulu daily, the day he was fired he lost everything, even his self love and mind- am not making a joke, just saying I’d rather discuss making films and travelling the world than making money in a restaurant, but then again thats why we artists die poor.

  36. Sbu Sbu 11 September 2009

    Uncle Memela, I would like to draw your attention to the words of one Westbrook Pegler (New York World – Telegram):

    “Money is only clam shells or metal discs or scraps of paper, and there are treasures of the heart and soul which money cannot buy, but most people, being broke, are unable to keep this in mind and sustain their spirits. When a man is down and out and on the street, unable to get any job at all, something happens to his spirit which cannot be observed in the droop of his shoulders, the set of his hat, his walk and his gaze. He cannot escape a feeling of inferiority among people with regular employment, even thou he knows they are definitely not his equals in character, intelligence or ability”

    In light of the above, you might be charmed to forgive our dear brothers and sisters for their lack of “intelligent engagement and stimulation”, theirs is a journey to “sustain their spirits”, they do suffer from a prolonged post-traumatic slave syndrome that lead them to be trapped in an inferiority complex that manifests in them rarely using their money to improve the material conditions of the poor, and what not!

    Furthermore, the privileged status you hold for history, wisdom, knowledge and information might indeed be astute, but surely Africans are allowed to converse about their immediate priorities, king to those being money, at the end of it thou, money talks so let’s talk money!

  37. Peter Peter 15 October 2009

    “In Africa, money should not have a privileged status over history, wisdom, knowledge and information.”

    Sandile the above has always been a part of the African’s existence but what do we have to show for it? Now that South Africans have become unshackled of the Apartheid bonds which artificially limited their economic participation through legislation shouldn’t they use the opportunity to pursue economic success like all peoples of the world?

    Political freedom has (to an extent) been achieved however we have the most unequal society in the world, in light of this don’t you think economic prosperity is a legitimate preoccupation?

    What “real issues” do you want to discuss Sandile and how do they benefit the African?

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