Rise of South Africa's ultra-rich reveals a tale of two nations

17 May 2015 - 02:01 By Suthentira Govender

When times get tough, it seems the rich in South Africa get richer - in spite of living in a country with vast wealth discrepancies.

Despite the turbulent economic times, wealthy South Africans are getting even wealthier - and the number of millionaires is growing in leaps and bounds.

As their fortunes grow, the super-rich are splurging on fine art, wines, supercars, rare game, second homes abroad and expensive watches - all in the name of "investment".

The growth spurt among the rich has seen the arrival of some of the world's most exclusive stores in our malls, and by the end of the year well-heeled shoppers will be able to splash out at Prada, Jimmy Choo, Christian Louboutin and Zegna, stores where a simple tie can cost R2000 and a designer handbag as much as R300,000.

A report by Sandton-based wealth intelligence company New World Wealth reveals that South Africa still has the highest number of high-net-worth individuals on the continent.


It has 46,800 millionaires, each with a net worth of $1-million (about R12-million).

Their combined wealth comes to $184-billion.

The contrast between the country's rich and the rest of its 51.8million citizens is starkly laid bare in official statistics.

A quick glance at the government's Statistics Online website shows just how far the super-wealthy have left behind their compatriots.

The wealth gap is equally mirrored by the education levels between South Africa's four main race groups - Indian, white, coloured and African.

For example, the wealth report speaks of a rise in the number of Indian millionaires. Last year's government figures showed that only 16.9% of Africans had tertiary education and 53.5% did not reach matric.

In contrast, 79.9% of Indians had either matric or a tertiary education.

Only 17.1% of African women and 14.7% of African men had skilled jobs. Compare this to the 2.1% of Indian women and 5.8% of Indian men who had low-skilled jobs.

The figures are similarly stark for white and coloured citizens. Whites and Indians enjoy similar educational opportunities and skills while coloureds and Africans lag far behind.

Back in 1998, former president Thabo Mbeki rose in parliament to give a speech which was to be called his "Two Nations" address. Mbeki cast his countrymen along racial lines - a country divided into two nations.


"One of these nations is white, relatively prosperous, regardless of gender or geographic dispersal. It has ready access to a developed economic, physical, educational, communication and other infrastructure.

"This enables it to argue that, except for the persistence of gender discrimination against women, all members of this nation have the possibility to exercise their right to equal opportunity, the development opportunities to which the constitution of '93 committed our country," Mbeki said.

"The second and larger nation of South Africa is black and poor, with the worst affected being women in the rural areas, the black rural population in general and the disabled.

"This nation lives under conditions of a grossly underdeveloped economic, physical, educational, communication and other infrastructure."

Time has made Mbeki's two nations definition less neat. Seventeen years , as the wealth report illustrates, have smudged the lines of race and wealth - albeit to a small but still significant degree.

And the number of wealthy people is going up. The report predicts that by 2017, the number of South Africa's millionaires will increase to 55000.

Between 2007 and 2014, the number of very wealthy multimillionaires - with net assets of $30-million or more - rose from 526 to 639. The number of billionaires increased by 50%; there are now six. The number of centimillionaires - those with net assets of between $100-million and $1-billion - rose by 30% to 87.

The report says entry-level millionaires have a propensity to hold cash or invest in property, whereas billionaires tend to invest in collectables, commodities and hedge funds.

Affluent millionaires are most likely to invest in fixed-income products and equities.

The average age of multimillionaires in South Africa is 55, slightly below the world average of 56. Under-40s make up only 6% of the list.

The financial services industry - asset management and brokering - is the main route by which South African multimillionaires have acquired their wealth; it is the primary source of wealth for 20%. Other important industries include real estate, construction and basic materials.


Johannesburg is home to the largest share of millionaires, at 50%, with 19% living in Cape Town and 6% in Durban.

Durban millionaire numbers have increased by 200% since 2000, compared with the national increase of 135%. The city's growth has been fuelled by "massive millionaire growth" in the luxury seaside towns of Umhlanga and La Lucia, especially among Indians, who have risen nationally more than other racial groups.

A financial coach to the wealthy, Professor Dilip Garach, attributed the increase in the number of Indian millionaires - from 3600 in 2007 to 9800 last year - to their "being industrious and constantly looking for business opportunities".

"In most cases the wealth has been acquired post-1994 after South Africa achieved democracy and hence the wealth is 'new' money and not inherited," said Garach.


According to the report, collectables such as art, wine and classic cars, jewellery, stamps and super-luxury items have become increasingly popular for the rich "to store their wealth", and accounted for $1.5-billion of the total assets of South Africa's wealthy last year.

In South Africa specifically, rare game, such as buffalo, roan antelope and sable antelope, which sell for more than $20000 an animal, have become a popular investment.

When it comes to luxury cars, Porsche sold about 2100 in South Africa last year, followed by 96 for Ferrari and 48 for Maserati. Some $32-million was generated from the sales of super-luxury watches including Patek Philippe, Franck Muller, Breguet, Vacheron Constantin and Ulysse Nardin.

The obvious contrast to what many might describe as vanity-driven conspicuous consumption without conscience again lies in the statistics.

The newly coined Umhlanga millionaire might think nothing of forking out R100000-plus for his wife's Louboutin 100mm Follies Spikes stilettos. But for the African woman from KwaMashu who would be lucky to earn R16470 a month - the average in the formal, non-agricultural sector - it is a luxury that truly belongs in another country, another nation.

'It's too easy to be a rand millionaire'

Umhlanga couple Vesen and Shameen Chetty live the high-life - they own a posh home, drive supercars and travel the world regularly.

Their net worth stands at more than $1-million (about R12-million) and they work long hours to grow their businesses, which include financial planning services, lingerie stores, IT services, real estate and a travel and tourism company.

The Chettys, who own two Porsches and property in Umhlanga, are among the fast-growing millionaires in Durban, which, according to the 2015 South Africa Wealth Report, is the top-performing city for the super-wealthy in the country.

Chetty, 41, is proud of his self-made wealth .

"I consider a millionaire someone who has in excess of $1-million. It's too easy to be a rand millionaire these days," he said.


"I initially followed the 'known system to financial success', which our parents taught us: go to school, get good grades, study further, get a high-paying job. I soon realised that plan was a lie when I was retrenched from a high-flying IT career at a blue-chip company when I was 30."

The couple were flat broke and nearly lost everything, until Vesen started selling insurance to feed his family.

"Most people have a 40-year plan. Instead of saving for 40 years, I took two to three years to build a team and business systems that will generate income for me and my family ... I have since created many business teams across various industries that will provide ongoing income for generations."

He would not say how much he is really worth.

Andrew Amoils, head of research at New World Wealth, a Sandton-based wealth intelligence company that compiled the report, identified finance, real estate, retail and media as the top sectors for Indian millionaires.

Durban millionaire, Leo Chetty (no relation to Vesen ), said the secret of his success was not " being complacent [about] the idea of success".

Leo, who owns a private equity business, has a Ferrari and a holiday home in Mozambique.

"As true entrepreneurs, we are always looking for the next big deal, we are continuously searching for opportunity," he said.