Approaching a shared topic from different angles: studying the new middle classes in southern Africa – Fellows’ seminar by Maxim Bolt, Claudia Gastrow and Preben Kaarsholm

6 May 2019

“Context is important. What is middle class in Amaoti is different to Sandton. We are examining the different self-understandings and identity politics of belonging and aspiration. As well as a matter of property, income, and power, class is also a matter of self-definition with ethnicity, gender, generation and modernism as important markers of distinction,” said Preben Kaarsholm of the Department of Social Sciences and Business at Roskilde University.

This second seminar of the ‘New Middle Classes in Africa’ group focused on property, urban spatial transformation, and the interplay of formality and informality in class formation through the presentation of case studies from South Africa, Kenya and Angola. Maxim Bolt of the Department of African Studies and Anthropology at the University of Birmingham examined the massive post-apartheid expansion of home ownership in Johannesburg townships and the resulting clash of individual versus family accumulation. Claudia Gastrow of the Department of Anthropology and Development Studies at the University of Johannesburg investigated how formal housing has emerged as a primary index of class distinction and boundary making in Luanda, Angola. While Kaarsholm explored how, in a poor South African urban settlement – Amaoti, outside Durban – the emergence of the new middle classes has coincided with a growth in inequality and the informalisation of labour.

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

“The accumulation of property in South Africa has been insufficiently examined to date,” said Bolt. “South Africa’s urban black middle class has grown exponentially since apartheid. Against a wider backdrop of high unemployment, the demands of widening circles of kin compete with efforts to ensure security and status for the next generation. Upward mobility remains fragile at best. For many, the one real asset is a house.”

“However, with changing laws there remain legal and bureaucratic aspects which can cause a tangled mess particularly in inheritance transfers. This leads to uncertainty and disputes in the newly property-owning class.”

Bolt pointed out that township house ownership has been facilitated especially by the devolving of state-owned houses. Apartheid law did not permit black ownership in urban settings, and family rental permits in that era led many families subsequently to regard ownership as collective. This is often reflected in cross-generational cohabitation, and there have even been attempts to formalise family agreements to mitigate against individual ownership.

“Homes are a conventional wealth-building tool everywhere but in many cases in South Africa the question of who actually owns the house can be fraught. In some cases an individual registered the property in their name without the family knowing. In other cases, a family member was chosen as representative or custodian, but was granted title. Either way, one person becomes a sole owner.”

“When that owner dies there can be huge disagreements. Families may claim a collective entitlement to the parent’s abode despite what is listed in the title deeds. However, the family house ownership idea holds little sway in current law. Some also now retrospectively contest male primogeniture – the principle for black inheritance under apartheid, later declared unconstitutional.”

“People find ways to counter the legal aspects – for example, houses may stay in the names of long-dead people to avoid family fights.” But, at some point, the complex legal aspects are brought into family fights, which sometimes also devolve into arson, eviction and physical violence.

Owning not renting

“In Angola rental doesn’t cut it,” said Gastrow. “Even the poor try to build.” Gastrow suggested that by focusing on contemporary government housing projects, it was possible to track how the formal house had come to stand at the centre of personal and state attempts to ensure that a middle class could be financially and performatively reproduced in a city like Luanda.

Following Angola’s 27-year civil war (1975 – 2002), there was a massive state investment in housing and infrastructure. One aspect of this involved state investments being used to produce a middle class through the production of cityscapes that matched middle-class dreams. Through subsidised housing, the state, in effect, rendered possible the realisation of a middle-class status.

“A new generation of university graduates wanted housing comparative to their status,” argued Gatrow. Access to the better state housing projects was limited to those who had long-term employment projects, meaning predominantly state employees but also those working for banks and oil companies, indicating who the state believed its more prestigious housing projects were aimed at. “As a result,” she continued “the image of a prosperous Angola was built around formal employment.”

Gastrow also pointed to some challenges in the system. “Initially some of the social housing projects were virtual ghost towns, although a drop in price later meant that they became fully occupied. Because the state was the means to access housing, this rendered a reliance on the state.”

This reliance on the state was partially a product of the existing difficulties in registering property in the country. “A lot of property in Angola is still not formally registered which means property taxes are not collected and banks cannot collect on defaulted loans. As a result, mortgage interest rates are also very high – up to 25%. The result has been that the state has become a key player in enabling access to the kind housing that people feel is commensurable with their status – formal housing.”

Wealthy homes alongside shacks

“What is interesting in so much of this work is the mixed nature of many areas – with wealthy people living right next to shacks,” said Kaarsholm. His project, conducted together with Bodil Folke Frederiksen, involves field work carried out in two urban slum areas in South Africa and Kenya from the mid-1990s onwards, which has sought to map out the dynamics of social differentiation which have occurred over the two decades since both Kenya and South Africa went through political transitions.

“Amaoti in Inanda – near KwaMashu in Durban – is an interesting mixture of formality and informality which highlights the objective and subjective dimensions of class. The area arose out of a famous mission reserve and provided land for African freehold ownership in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Land owning was therefore linked to a historical elite of Africans and Indians which became limited under urban segregation and apartheid. It was also home to African working-class people, many of whom worked in the Durban port, as well as migrant workers. However, during the extensive political violence of the 1980s many of the Indians were chased out. The declaration of the State of Emergency in 1984 led to 10 years of ungovernability which ended in 1996 with the first local government elections.”

Despite these changes in the last few decades, the area has remained a cultural and religious hotbed.

“Today there are remnants of the original historical middle classes – both African and Indian – many of whom are wealthy entrepreneurs, salaried white- and blue-collar workers, pensioners, students and young people – including unemployed or illegally employed. There is also a new urban formality some of which has been attained through the so-called RDP (Reconstruction and Development Programme) houses and other state-developed projects. Nevertheless, many shacks remain situated next to them, and people are making money from ‘shack farming’. RDP house ownership alongside some ‘shack lordism’ leads to a very particular dynamic,” he explained.

The research has explored local politics, the dynamics of violence, moral debates, and popular culture with a focus on youth living in situations of high unemployment, poverty and risk. “We are attempting to explain why youth aspirations for self-improvement and middle-class livelihoods have taken on different forms in Kenya and South Africa. Though ideals of middle-class-ness have included notions of global universality, striving towards them in South Africa and Kenya has involved different moral debates, different alignments of religious and cultural belonging, different attitudes towards informality and entrepreneurship, as well as different expectations of the state.” For Kaarsholm, the paradox is that, “the middle class in Africa is growing at the same time as the increase in informality, rising inequality, wealth disparities and marginalisation.”

One of the reasons behind this paradox might lie in the complexity of how assets are categorised and laws enacted.

“There is very uneven wealth distribution in a place like Soweto,” added Bolt. “In South Africa property is about creating wealth but in urban townships there is a complex interplay between assets, informal resale and collective entitlement with potential layers of fraud in between. Wealth accumulation is therefore often complicated by the question of whether it is the individual or the family accumulating.”

See also for the first seminar presentation on the work of this group.

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

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