Opinion

Town Talk syndrome all over again

During the ’70s of my childhood, the festive season was remarkable: older people, groaning under the weight of money which they called Bonus, were overly generous, tossing a coin in one’s direction at the slightest provocation.
You didn’t have to spin yet another yarn about your school teacher needing money to buy chlorophyll for a class science experiment.

Their generosity also saw them buying new clothes for their piccaninnies and themselves – the shiniest Dobbshire pants here, Florsheim shoes with the thickest soles you could get there, fancy Viyella shirts – the works.

But the highlight of it all was when your parents took possession of a new Welcome Dover coal stove and a lounge suite, complete with gumbagumba music player from Town Talk Furnishers.

You would try to make the most of this new lounge suite because come January or February, the people from Town Talk would come to collect it.

Your parents would be so impatient and angry you couldn’t risk asking why the people from Town Talk were repossessing the furniture.

It was much later in life that I cottoned on that people knowingly ordered these huge lounge suites that they could not afford just to impress their neighbours and visitors over the festive season, to show that they had moved up the ladder of respectability.

Those days, furniture stores were not as sophisticated as they are today; they couldn’t take you to the credit bureau for non-payment, so the best they could do was repossess the motley collection of furniture that they had supplied to you on a hire-purchase basis. By the time they came, some of the chairs would be so threadbare they could have been with you for the whole decade.

Needless to say, I detested the white people from Town Talk for their hard-heartedness; why mess with the parents’ image in the ‘hood?

My parents were one of the first in our neighbourhood to have their furniture repossessed. But it soon became a fashion; the other darkies caught up with the wily ways of the Khumalos.

The repossession of furniture by the hard-hearted white Town Talkers was brought back to my mind by a newspaper report this week which said the black middle class, the so-called Black Diamonds making up 9% of the population, now accounts for 28% of all spending:

The Black Diamonds, a survey quoted by the paper showed, are expected to exceed spending by whites by 2009. Nothing wrong with that. The problem is that the Black Diamonds are overspending, especially on luxury items such as cars. And the cars are getting repossessed.

Now therein lies the rub. It’s ’70s black South Africa all over again with the Town Talk furniture people having taken a new incarnation: they are now BMW, Jeep, etcetera.

The Black Diamonds, who earn on average R6100 a month, have no compunction buying an expensive vehicle, knowing very well that a few months down the line it will be repossessed for non-payment. The thinking seems to be: As long as people have seen me driving it, it’s fine, those heartless people at BMW or the bank can come take it away.

I know of a famous filmmaker who has the whole thing down to an art. Because he has a clean credit record, and often gets huge amounts from the SABC to make TV productions, he goes to a car dealership, chooses one of the latest models, charms the sales team, gets a bank to finance the deal and ends up driving away in a beautiful car.

That’ll be the last the bank hears from him; no repayments whatsoever. Just when the bank is about to report him to the credit bureau – the brother has good timing! – he drives the car back to the dealership, pleading poverty: “I’ve lost my contract with the SABC, blah, blah.”

I believe this scam, if I should call it that, has caught on countrywide.

Not so long ago I wrote a column encouraging my brethren, especially the educated ones, to take pride in the cars they drive.

For my sins, I was chewed out by some of my readers who said I was encouraging irresponsible spending. All I was trying to say is that driving a beautiful car in an impoverished neighbourhood you grew up in would show the young guns there that beautiful wheels are not the preserve of gangsters.

That is all I said. I never said that people should spend money they don’t have in order to impress. I never said people should get into trouble with their banks and the credit bureaus.

And God forfend, don’t try to be Khanyi Mbau; you don’t know where her money comes from (if it’s still there).

And, for crying out loud, I never said people should steal in order to finance wheels or any other possessions that might impress their friends and their dog. Cars, by the way, are not an investment; you buy an expensive car once you have investments.

Don’t do what our parents used to do, that is, buy furniture on hire purchase in an attempt to spite the white people at Town Talk Furnishers.

Credit: Fred Khumalo/Sunday Times (khumalo@sundaytimes.co.za)
Khumalo is a writer on the Sunday Times of South Africa.