Examining the new middle class in Africa – Fellows’ seminar by Deborah James, Carola Lentz, Isidore Lobnibe and Thabisani Ndlovu

15 April 2019

“Paradoxically, while in Europe and America the old middle class is said to be in crisis, its newer incarnation in the Global South is celebrated as being on the rise. The growth of this class owes itself, in some settings, to the extension of consumer credit to those who were formerly denied it, enabling new forms of consumption. In other cases, it is a result of redistributive initiatives of governments, through cash transfers, as in Brazil, or through enlarging the civil service to include the previously disenfranchised, as in South Africa. Factors of state and market interweave in complex ways to provide the underpinnings for this emerging social category,” said Deborah James of the Department of Anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Middle classes group 2019 (002)
STIAS fellows Maxim Bolt, Claudia Gastrow, Thabisani Ndlovu, Deborah James, Isidore Lobnibe, Preben Kaarsholm and Carola Lentz

Along with Carola Lentz of the Department of Anthropology and African Studies, University of Mainz, Isidore Lobnibe of the Department of Anthropology at Western Oregon University and Thabisani Ndlovu of the Department of Arts at Walter Sisulu University, James was outlining some of the aims of their STIAS project which examines the rise of the ‘new middle class’ in Africa.

The project draws on life histories and fictional representations alongside other social science methods to ask questions like: How does being or self-identifying as middle class affect ideas of citizenship, political affiliation, and new forms of associational life? How does ‘doing middle-classness’ differ from or intersect with other forms of class ‘doing’ and other ranges of identification, such as gender, kinship, religion or ethnicity? What are the intersecting dynamics of precariousness and stability? And how can we analyse people’s experiences of hope and disappointment, success and failure?

While all the case studies from the seminar reveal the crucial importance of family relations in creating and mediating the ambiguous situation faced by those in the ‘new middle class’, the focus of the next presentation from the group concerns their urban living situation, including the impact upon its members of formalising, acquiring, and transmitting, property and real estate.

Difficult to define

From the first uses of the term in the 19th century, defining this category that embraces a broad variety of economic roles, lifestyles and political visions, has been a challenge for social scientists. “Some prefer to use a verb rather than a noun, and speak of ‘middle classing’ or ‘doing middle classness’,” explained James. “Others speak of ‘middle classes’.”

The definition tends to be ambiguous – it can be both income-related and relate to subjective self-positioning that reflects how people see themselves vis-à-vis other classes. Either way, there is no doubt that a broader group – above subsistence levels, but not so wealthy as to be able to spend indiscriminately – is becoming visible within many countries of the Global South. “With the global shift to the financial and service industries, new family and community groups have started aspiring to gain access to those things formerly available only to elites” she continued. “According to a recent study in Soweto by Phadi and Ceruti, they see themselves as ‘middling’ people – not at the top or the bottom – but self-sufficient and socially mobile.”

“In some settings, the creation of elites in earlier years was fostered by the colonial regime, through its encouragement of land purchase as the basis of future stability. Even in South Africa with its apartheid system, buying property was – for a small minority of black people – possible in the early years of the 20th century,” she said. “This formed the basis of what Leo Kuper called an ‘African bourgeoisie’. Although the more recently-emerging and rapidly-expanding middle classes might have some continuities with these older groupings, by and large they are seen, rightly or wrongly, as a new phenomenon.”

“It’s been noted (for example in Kenya) that, whereas those descended from the old elites can rely on family money, the children of lower middle-class professionals – such as teachers – feel they must rely on their own efforts to climb the social ladder. They have a meritocratic ideology with success based on valuing education and professionalism and access to ‘white-collar’ work,” she continued.

But economic advancement, income and property ownership are only part of the picture. Upward mobility and inclusivity can often only be precariously gained. The flip side, exclusion, is equally likely. Both are experienced in different ways which the group illustrated by means of case studies.

Lentz explained that her work involves looking at the biographies of five generations of upwardly mobile men in Northern Ghana. “It’s really about five generations of different ways of seeing yourself as ‘middle class’,” she said. “In the 1950s elite meant a middle school-leaving certificate and a job as a teacher, one generation later you needed a secondary-leaving certificate and a white-collar job in a larger town. Another generation on, you needed a tertiary education. In other words, the criteria kept changing over the decades. Now the youngest generation is experiencing increasing competition in the job market and the possibility of unemployment despite their educational credentials, so their status may change again.”

Isidore Lobnibe presented a case study of the funeral economy in Ghana. He noted that funerals serve as arenas where incipient middle class display their ideologies of progress. “You have to give family members a decent burial to show you have arrived,” he said. “It’s not so much about showing that the deceased was middle class but that the relatives are. It’s about demonstrating your success in your rural village through conspicuous consumption – people should not forget the funeral.”

Recognition by others that you have arrived is an important component of middle classness played out in many social rituals. Thabisani Ndlovu looked at the complexities of eating out at ‘fine restaurants’ in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg. “Eating out should be a mundane activity embodied in an expanded sense of class,” he said. “It’s about taking part in the rituals of consumption of the leafy suburbs not the township.”

“But,” he pointed out, “restaurants are not just dining and leisure spaces, they are also about judgement and possible status inconsistency – reflecting the anxiety that one’s middle-class status can be conferred in some aspects and withdrawn in others.”

Whether the group is defined by economic and social indicators, or by emphasising their practices and emerging identifications, the process can lead to inclusion or exclusion. And, particularly in the South African setting, race is a complicating factor.

“Blackness appears to contradict middle-class status,” said Ndlovu. “Blackness complicates middle classness. Consequently, many people move back and forward between the suburbs and the townships and this is more than just a physical movement – it’s about crisscrossing and redrawing cultural spaces.”

“Being able to buy the same goods as people occupying a wealthier social bracket does little to welcome the new earner into that stratum, if it fails to change the perceptions of those people higher up the scale who may refuse to recognise the newcomers as part of the middle class,” added James, “A lot of this is about recognition.”

“Social media also play an important role in the performance of class,” said Lobnibe. “You are not considered middle class if you are not connected. But it allows people to depict the lifestyle they want even if it is fake.”

In 19th-century Europe, the rise of the middle class was underpinned by different kinds of resources, Lentz pointed out. In Germany it was based more on the free professions and civil service employees, while in Britain it relied more on entrepreneurial activities. For the 20th century middle class in the Global South, the role of the state is key. “In a country like South Africa, being middle-class is reliant on state expenditure and state jobs, as Roger Southall has shown. Entrepreneurialism is poorly developed,” said James.

The strong reliance on salaries rather than self-employment, the reliance on high-interest commercial credit, and the need to support one’s extended family, all translate to some level of precariousness and a tension between autonomy and dependence. In her case study, James explored the conundrum faced by many. Do middle-class ethics encompass the narrowing down of commitments in order to afford the best for one’s own family – as advised by many self-help books – or rather broadening them so as to care for relatives who are less well-off? As a way out, many ‘middle classers’ feel that these kinds of redistributive measures ought to be achieved by institutional/bureaucratic measures like formal taxation.

“Most of these individuals don’t have generations of stability behind them,” said James. “They have moved up the social ladder individually and this makes them vulnerable to failure. It’s important therefore to understand how stable they see themselves as being and what their constraints and limitations are. The austerity already introduced elsewhere and imminently threatening South Africa has the potential to drag down the middle class. I think the #FeesMustFall movement in South Africa showed, to some extent, the precariousness of this class but also their potential for political action.”

“The middle class has never been politically unified in its own right,” added Lentz. “Nevertheless, it is generally seen as the cornerstone of liberalism and the bedrock of political stability. The middle class has things to lose – they therefore maintain the status quo, property and education, and want stable government. They tend to vote for a stable future not related to political patronage or ethnicity, and distinct from their former obligations.”

“However, the question of whether the newly upwardly mobile are too precarious to have a sustainable existence, or to assert that they are nothing more than a class of ‘strugglers’, may miss the important social and political role they can play, based on the confidence that comes with new patterns of education, aspiration, consumption and work,” concluded Lentz.

Other members of the group include Claudia Gastrow of the University of Johannesburg, Preben Kaarsholm of Roskilde University and visiting scholar Maxim Bolt of the University of Birmingham.

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw

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