For as long as I’ve known him, Oupa Nkosi has had his eye trained on the swelling ranks of the black middle class. It’s a long-term project that has taken him from corner offices in Johannesburg’s banking district to weddings in Pimville, Soweto (where he grew up). He has rarely exhibited the works, notably at the Bonani Africa group exhibition at the Castle of Good Hope Museum in 2010. He speaks to The Con about his love for successful black women, his contempt for izikhothane and discarding the term “black diamond” and what it did for the project
When did your project start?
It started around 2005/ 2006 as an assignment I did for the Mail & Guardian, looking at the rise of the black middle class. I guess I started doing it because I had access to some of the people and once I started documenting, I saw that it had the potential of being big.
I’d work with journalists. We’d identify places and then I’d document. We started out shooting nightclubs and township parks where vibrant people would visit to relax and have fun. Also, we’d go to just average pubs, seeing what kind of people went there and what they were up to.
What potential did you see in it?
It was something different, looking at the success of black people, success stories instead of sad, poverty-stricken people who don’t have hope. I was inspired by the fact that they were ordinary people working hard to better their lives and were not necessarily connected to the ruling party. They were just people working to change the lives of a whole generation of black people.
I didn’t focus on old money but on people who had made it in our generation. People who had gone to school first, who had begun like me; gone through the same township lifestyle and were working.
As you went along, how did the project change and take on a life of its own?
Seeing the positive stories of success, albeit of a minority of black people, I thought I could use the project to give hope and inspire others. It doesn’t mean if you drive an expensive car then you’re successful, because people get caught up in debt. The people I was engaging knew what they were about and they were financially savvy. It was all about working hard and the commodities they had were the rewards of that. So at first, the project was random; doing pubs and nightclubs but then I felt I was stereotyping black people, as in “black diamonds”. So I sat down and thought about it. Even though they do go to clubs, these people had families, so I started visiting people at home while they were spending time with their kids – showing critically where these people come from.
I initially used it [in reference to the work], I still believe it’s a catchy term but then people get the wrong idea of what the work is all about. It has negative connotations. I just changed the name of the project to the “black middle class”. “Black diamond” to me implies glam and fascination with new money, whereas “middle class” suggests different generations, everyone in the family. To me middle class is about history, where people are coming from and where they are going. I saw exactly what I needed to do when I changed the name of the project.
The middle class, as we’ve said, didn’t emerge after apartheid, and yet most of your images focus on people who started making money after apartheid, don’t you think that limits the project?
After apartheid, numbers started to increase as black people were exposed to new opportunities, more and more people found jobs they had actually studied for and began to play a bigger role in the economy.
It was black females who are educated and gather to discuss how they can improve and impact the economy. Seeing them together inspired something in me. But now I intend to focus on young kids who are attending multi-racial schools and are exposed to many opportunities and how they’re taking to it. I’m interested in finding out where they’re going, what influences their behaviour, their understanding of life and a culture that, in a way, they are separated from. The emphasis on where they come from is becoming less and less. They end up conforming to please other people and in doing so, their culture dies.
You’ve taken some amazing pictures of izikhothane. Do you think they fit into this broad project or are you keeping them separate?
It can be a part of it but it’s not. These kids think they know, but they don’t know shit. Those who are from privileged families are pissing on the hard work of their parents. They’re young, uninformed guys who want to portray something not there and make it a reality.
They come from okay or poor families, it’s just that their parents love them so much they are willing to give them anything.
So what’s your sense of the class dynamics at play there?
It’s like the swenkas; mineworkers who like looking good and they spend their salaries on looking good. It doesn’t mean they are better off than the others. Izikhothane are just status-driven.
Is it not a legitimate reaction to the dehumanising nature of poverty?
To a certain extent that is true but burning clothes and money is stupid. I can’t do that or condone it. It’s degrading black society. Most black people are poor and dying of hunger. Even a stupid person wouldn’t do that, so I wonder how stupid they are.
If you aspire to something, you cherish everything that comes your way and you maximise every opportunity.