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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 October 2006, 23:01 GMT 00:01 UK
Financing SA's black middle class
By Jamie Robertson
BBC World business reporter in South Africa

New housing estates are springing up across South Africa
South Africa's growing middle class is fueling a construction boom

Part of South Africa's Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) rules has demanded the opening up of the financial services industry to the black majority.

Now new housing estates are springing up to the meet the needs of an emerging black middle class, and new funding has become available as well.

Home ownership

Bogani Mtsishi and his fiancÚ have just bought their first house.

He is a mining engineer who has, with several colleagues, formed his own company.

With luck he's hoping it may list on the Johannesburg stock exchange next year.

For him his own house is the logical next step. But where he's chosen to buy is a little different.

The Cosmo City estate, south of Johannesburg, is the biggest in South Africa with some 12,500 units, and deliberately mixes low cost and subsidised housing with high end property.

For sale sign at new South African housing development
Readily available credit is helping people join the housing market

Around 7,500 of them will be sold on the open market.

And there's a new property-owning class in the making of which Bogani has just become a part.

"I came here because I liked what was being built around here, the way the government was trying to bring societies together - and basically, the houses are affordable," Bogani says.

Property risk

Yet estates like Cosmo City are not universally popular.

Some of Bognani's friends are worried that the value of the properties will lag behind the market because - just down the road - the neighbours are living in subsidised government housing.

But that's the way the designers planned it: and all the amenities, playgrounds, shops and particularly schools have catchment areas overlapping each level of housing from the richest to the poorest.

And as the BEE rules prise open the financial services for the black majority, the mortgage industry has found itself a new market.

Easy money

The banks have embraced the concept eagerly. Easy money is fast becoming a feature of the new South African economy.

There have been warnings from the Reserve Bank as the demand for credit rose 25% over the last year.

Economists are anxious that borrowers, many of them home owners, will be badly stung if, as expected, interest rates rise.

Absa at the moment is the market leader in mortgage lending at Cosmo City.

Louis von Zeuner, executive director of retail banking at Absa, believes there is a real risk.

"We must also have a thorough education of consumers - the responsibility of taking on a mortgage account, the discipline of a instalments and so forth," he says.

"We are also finding that the bulk of the growth in our consumer banking is coming from the emerging black market.

"But we believe that the cornerstone of a healthy society is the ownership of property."

New savings schemes

And with home ownership and mortgages comes the concept of savings.

Bogani is managing to put money away into shares and a range of savings schemes.

In Soweto, a few miles to the west, at Absa's mobile bank outside the township's biggest taxi rank, the contributions are more humble, but the customer numbers are huge.

Although the bank is meant to be mobile, it hasn't moved since it was craned into position 18 months ago.

Now its tellers on average deal with one customer every two minutes.

"We are meeting the needs of the hawkers outside in the street, the taxi drivers, the taxi owners and a lot school kids as well," said branch manager Nthabiseng Mohlabisi.

"The hawkers bring in every cent they make from selling what they have in their stalls."

It may have taken the black empowerment rules to prise open financial services - but now they are available - the black majority are only too eager to embrace them - savings, loans, pensions - in short the bricks and mortar of a modern economic system.

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