Urban informality and middle-class aspirations in South Africa and Kenya

This project will take its point of departure in field work carried out by Bodil Folke Frederiksen and myself in two urban slum areas in South Africa and Kenya from the mid-1990s onwards. Our parallel trajectories of research have explored local politics, dynamics of violence, moral debates, and popular culture with a special focus on youth living in situations of high unemployment, extensive poverty and risk in two settings – that of Amaoti in Inanda on the outskirts of Durban and that of Pumwani in the Eastlands of Nairobi. My research aims to map out the dynamics of social differentiation which have occurred over the last two decades since both Kenya and South Africa went through important political transitions. This has involved new forms of marginalization and vulnerability as well as of middle-class formation, with middle-class aspirations taking on both realistic and imaginary forms, and some strategies of self-improvement and respectability being hinged on ritual and routine rather than an increase in wealth. The research explores the careers of prominent local intellectuals and politicians within the two urban environments, and attempts to explain why the aspirations of youth for self-improvement and middle-class livelihoods have taken on such different forms in Kenya and South Africa. Though ideals of middle-class have included notions of global universality, striving towards them in South Africa and Kenya has involved different types of moral debates, different kinds of alignment of religious and cultural belonging, different attitudes towards informality and entrepreneurship, as well as different levels of faith in and expectations from the state.

This project forms part of the project The new middle class in Africa in comparative perspective, convened by Debora James (London School of Economics).

Project leader(s):
  • Preben Kaarsholm (Department of Social Sciences and Business, Roskilde University)

Leave a Reply