The Role of the Middle Class(es) in the Transitions of Southern African Societies – Critical Current and Historical Perspectives

By Henning Melber

This session, which was attended by some 20 participants, had its main focus on the South African case study. Roger Southall (University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg) presented an in-depth historical and current analysis on The Black Middle Class and Democracy in South Africa. After a summary overview on the historical trajectories of an emerging black middle class (BMC), closely associated with the political struggles under the leadership of the African national Congress (ANC), he shifted the main attention to the currently emerging BMC, positioned between the market and the party state as the two dominant factors for upward social mobility in democratic South Africa. He asked if members of a class depicted as increasingly consumerist would consistently support progressive causes, will act as a democratic force and be willing or likely to bite the hand of the party-state that feeds them.

The contemporary BMC remains historically attached to the ANC and is largely expanded and composed through state policies such as affirmative action and black economic empowerment. There is nonetheless hope that the growth of the BMC will add to political diversity and the consolidation of democracy. Members of the BMC, while remaining to a large part loyal to the ANC, are increasingly occupying space in public discourse to articulate critical reflections on the shortcoming of good governance under the ANC government, though reluctant to abandon their affiliation with the party-state in favor of other political alliances. As a result, demands for greater political accountability and transparency might be one positive result of a growing BMC.

Thorsten Euler (University of Bremen) presented a particular case study on The Middle Class as “Gatekeeper” and “Hub” for the South African Environmental Movement from a Social Network Perspective. Using the “Kloof conservancy” in the Durban area of KwaZulu Natal as a case in point, conservation concerns and environmental advocacy of such nature remains still a (predominantly white) middle class arena for engagement. While green parties remain irrelevant in South African politics, associations formed as a result of conservationist concerns are on the rise. These remain predominantly white middle class volunteer organisations, but are gradually transcended by a more general trend towards environmental concerns including other affected social groups.

The conservationist associations often maintain close links to industry and commerce and have a high ratio of civil servants in their ranks (the “hub” function). Membership often requires considerable financial contributions and established inner circles and network relations are barriers for potential newcomers. Conservation still dominates environmentalist discourses and challenges beyond a close association with nature tend to be ignored (the “gatekeeper” function). Ideological concerns associated with “nature” remains the primary motivation and still dominates the “three shades of green”, i.e. green (for conservation), brown (for pollution and health) and red (for inequality, justice and jobs). There are around 750 conservancies currently active in South Africa, while the black middle class and younger generations seem little interested in active participation. While an environmental justice movement is on the rise, it displays different goals and membership combining the notions of responsible development with social equality demands.

Henning Melber (Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, Uppsala) offered a more general summary overview on Middle Class(es) in (Southern) Africa – A Critical Assessment. He questioned the methodological soundness of the middle class “hype”, which he illustrated with reference to the discourse initiated by the UNDP’s Human Development Report 2013, the African Development Bank and various other international agencies. With reference also to other plenary presentations before the panel session he supported the cautious view that the middle class(es) should not be considered as a panacea, not even as a decisive factor in societies, who remain dominated by the richest segments holding the power of definition and decision-making at the commanding heights of economy and policy. Middle classes – often beneficiaries from neoliberal policies – remain incoherent, and far from being progressive by definition, neither in political nor in lifestyle terms.

The lively debate focused among others on the ambiguity of the African middle class(es), questioned the ideological notion of the particular “class” concept (which in the Dutch and German terminology has for these segments of society no corresponding classification as “class”, but rather as “stand” and “Schicht” respectively), while also enquiring to which extent other contributing factors (such as traditional hierarchies in rural societies, extended family concepts and related social components) might impact on the definition and character of African middle class(es). It was also observed that the individual freedoms members of middle class(es) enjoy are no motivating factors to engage in political struggles, but rather allow to be comfortable in a position as a new (relatively) privileged elite.

Henning Melber works at the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation in Uppsala Swden