Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

My maternal grandparents' home, in which they lived for six decades, had a patch of lawn and a flower bed in the front and a courtyard at the back. It was a small, well-cared-for house and a happy home.

My mother's childhood bedroom had a narrow, freestanding wardrobe. In the sitting room stood a small couch, two armchairs and a radiogram. On the enclosed verandah were three wicker chairs and a short bench, which my sisters and I had to squeeze onto when we visited as children.

My grandfather - known as the Fellside Fixer because neighbours brought all manner of items for him to repair - renovated the house himself, wallpapering the passage and extending the dining room. And while new furniture was occasionally bought, my grandparents were frugal.

Fast-forward to 2017. Now middle-class homes have wall-to-wall built-in cupboards and floor-to-ceiling kitchen cabinetry that must be filled. It's easy to do so with shopping malls sprawled across our cities. With the extension of credit, the rise of global mass production and the ability to buy almost anything you want with a few clicks on your phone or laptop, consumption now accounts for 60% of GDP.

In the 1940s, when my grandparents were married with young children, South Africa's economy was powered by agriculture and mining. But, by the 1950s, industry was beginning to eclipse these sectors.

According to Nicoli Nattrass and Jeremy Seekings, in a paper titled The Economy and Poverty in the Twentieth Century in South Africa, in the 1940s the government mobilised resources to support the war effort, an important initial spur to industrialisation.

By the end of the war, "South Africa had developed a domestic machine-tool industry and substantial manufacturing capacity", with manufacturing's share of GDP rising from 12% to 19% between 1939 and 1949, according to their paper.

But it was between the 1950s and the 1970s that the economy really grew, with real GDP tripling in that period. Despite the strong performance of agriculture (in which the government invested heavily) and mining, they were overshadowed by growth in manufacturing.

"The share of GDP accounted for by industry - including construction and electricity, as well as manufacturing - overtook the combined share of agriculture and mining in the 1950s," reaching 30% by the mid-1960s.

The economy had a critical weakness in that it was geared towards benefiting the white population at a massive cost to the majority of citizens. And the nature of the closed economy and the protection that the government gave to industries meant South African businesses were not competitive.

As we know, that stack of cards began to crumble in the 1970s and 1980s.

But for all the privilege my grandparents enjoyed, they did not splash out like middle-class South Africans do now - and that is another stack of cards that is crumbling as debt has curbed consumer spending.

Granted, my grandparents' ability to spend was limited: shopping was confined to the greengrocer and butcher, clothes were bought on occasional excursions into town.

Perhaps it is time we took a leaf out of our grandparents' book and thought twice before we splurge on things we just don't need.

Enslin-Payne is deputy editor of Business Times

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