BMW’s Black betrayal

Photo by Maria Geller

Even though he is from a working-class background, there is one thing that my father believes in.

BMW’s are reliable cars. As a result, my mother drove a number of models. My first car was a 1 series, 118i, and my brother bought a 135i the first time he got an opportunity to buy a car. Our dream remains to buy a ‘box-shaped’, 3 series, someday. As a kind of collector’s item.

BMW is a family car. Aunts, uncles and cousins have all driven one. Different models but for sure, we remain convinced that, a Bavarian Motor Works (BMW) is the recommended car. Little doubt, while some models may be expensive, the beauty of a BMW is that it can be driven by even members of the working class. Their engines are so reliable that many people coming from poorer communities can afford to purchase a second-third-and-even-fourth hand one. This is what makes the motor reliable.

Like most German products, some would suggest, it lasts. In post-apartheid South Africa, my family joined more and more members of the Black middle class who have chosen BMW as the way to go. These South Africans, formerly disadvantaged and even some disadvantaged to this day, would come to experience the “Freude am Fahren” or “sheer driving pleasure” that BMW drivers had come to experience in the last 55 years.

The English newspaper, The Guardian, ran a story in 2004, the peak of the growth of the Black middle class in South Africa hitherto, which said that “in the townships they call it Black Man’s Wish” and South Africa’s middle class had grown to be “young, black and driving a BMW.”

The story went on to tell the story of Ms Philiso, 35, who said of the car, when seated in it: “…feels good. It feels right. But I’m still your typical black single mum – who is now driving a BMW.”

Let’s put aside the moral or economic questions for a moment.

What we could maybe well agree upon is that there is probably no better symbol of Black success in the new South Africa than the BMW. It is therefore sad and regrettable that BMW has now chosen to betray its growing Black clientele and seek to protect a franchisee instead.

Recently, it was reported that Schlemmer & Associates, recruitment specialists, sent out a mail to staff indicating a “new spec [sic] from SMG for a Marketing Manager. Ideal candidate youngish white [sic] Male or Female (slightly prefer male).” Note, the specifics, according to Schlemmer, was “from” SMG.

Yet according to the report, Schlemmer himself subsequently denied, to the journalist, that the request came from SMG when questioned about his mail to staff.

Pressed on where he would have received the rest of the information for the position, he simply retorted: “that’s my business…” SMG sells brands such as Land Rover, Mini, Toyota, Lexus and BMW.

BMW South Africa does not allow members of the public to post anything on their Facebook page. So, in the comments section of a post of theirs and concerned for their brand, I suggested that “BMW South Africa should revoke and suspend the franchise license of SMG to trade as a BMW dealer in the Western Cape and Gauteng.”

The link to the article was also included. BMW South Africa responded by saying that “the BMW Group South Africa and all its entities – including [their] retail network – embraces diversity in every form, regardless of race, gender orientation or background.

Equal opportunities and inclusion are realities we live by every day, as we create barrier-free conditions for everyone. SMG did not – in any form – instruct the recruitment agency Schlemmer & Associates to appoint a Marketing Manager.

Schlemmer & Associates went about this without the knowledge and authorisation of SMG, as confirmed in writing by Schlemmer & Associates. SMG does not tolerate any form of discrimination, even from its supplier.

SMG has terminated all ties with Schlemmer & Associates, with immediate effect.” The response from SMG, and sadly by extension BMW, was predictable.

Neither SMG nor BMW South Africa indicated what action they would be taking against Schlemmer & Associates for damage caused to each of their brands. If BMW South Africa was committed to fighting racism it would have suspended SMG’s franchise license, conduct an independent investigation together with the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition.

There is just no way that a recruitment company could act out of its own volition. The story does not add up and smells rather of a collusion between Schlemmer & Associates and SMG to do damage control.

Race is a serious matter in South Africa and so is addressing our ugly past through measures such as employment equity. We cannot conclude otherwise than that BMW South Africa is protecting SMG and thus betraying its Black clientele.

Dr Wesley Seale has taught politics at UWC and Rhodes University. He writes in his personal capacity.