Finding and Defining the New Black Middle Class

“I noticed various narratives in the media, [including] the exoticisation of the black

middle class,” said Professor Roger Southall of the University of Witwatersrand at the

launch of his book, ‘The New Black Middle Class in South Africa’. “It’s almost as if

the black middle class were located in game parks and were being spotted for their

odd characteristics.”

 

 

Southall’s book, which was launched at Rhodes University on 16 March, aims to explore

an emerging class of citizens in a shifting socioeconomic society, and to interrogate

the problematic narratives that have too often been associated with such people.

“I’ve seen this as a reflection of the colonial narrative in the way the black middle

class, the ‘early elites’, were treated and viewed – not just in South Africa but in the

rest of Africa,” said Southall. “First of all, the black middle class was posed as

comical and absurd – as trying to imitate the white [middle class] by dressing in

Western clothes and adopting Western manners. The other side of the coin was the

emergent black middle class getting educated, moving into professions and being seen

as a direct threat to the colonial order.”

 

“In many of the narratives we find notions of the ‘black diamonds’ – this notion of the

black middle class as consumers gaged in irresponsible financial activities. [We also

find] presentable, simply-termed, entrepreneurs – people engaged in corrupt activities

linked to state.”

 

“The problem with all this is that when you look around you and interact with the

black middle class, they’re rather like me. They’re just the same. They’re interested in

finding somewhere decent to live. There’s this sense of ordinariness; that the black

middle class is gaged in what middle classes tend to do globally.”

 

But what does ‘middle class’ mean in an unstable economy and dynamic society?

 

“I criticise quite strongly definitions of middle class that rely simply on income and

occupation. I try to incorporate those into a broader definition of middle class and I’ve

paid a lot of attention to actual possession of wealth and where that comes from.”

“I draw the notion of middle class as drawing its middle classness from its economic

power, between the two great classes in society – the owners of capital and those who

labour.”

 

Southall’s narrative of the new black middle class also emphasises the relationship

between state power and emerging economic powers.

 

“The title of the book is the new middle class because, since 1994, its expansion has

been considerable and systematic, and it has been based around the ANC strategies

and policies, particularly Affirmative Action and BEE.”

 

But while the book identifies and explores the factors involved in the new black

middle class, Southall claims that class, identity and location are by no means a

definite narrative.

 

“I cite in the introduction the famous quote from EP Thompson where he says that if

you stop a class system at any particular moment, you won’t be able to see class.

Society is made up of a multiplicity of different identities, and of different interests;

gender, ethnicity, race, occupation, etc. I like that because it’s a root to exploring the

way in which different identities coexist with class location.”

 

hmcbm01

The cover image was photographed by Jodi Bieber, a South African woman examining interesting terrain.

Indeed, Southall seems to believe the exploring has only just begun.

“I think there is a very real need to explore the different locations of black middle class people in different parts of the country, particularly in the small towns.”

So it seems his scope is wider than game parks and books.

 

 

 

 

 

This article was originally publish on SpeakAfrika

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