Economic and Political Dynamics of Africa’s Emerging Middle Class

Robust economic growth in much of sub-Saharan Africa over the last decade is largely believed to have coincided with an expanding middle class.  According to some estimates, the region now has 200 million more members of the middle class than it did in the 1980s.  Yet, notwithstanding legions of journalistic accounts and private sector reports extolling the benefits of Africa’s rising middle class, there has been thus far very little rigorous scholarship on the behaviors and impact of this class on the political economy of Africa’s development.

Are Africa’s middle-classes development actors for their broader communities or do they focus predominantly on their own advancement and well-being? Are they actively engaged in changing their political systems or are they strongly supportive of the status quo?  To address these questions, this panel will therefore highlight selected research findings from a multi-year, inter-disciplinary project on Africa’s Emerging Middle Class, which has been led by the United Nations University-World Institute for Development Economics Research (UNU-WIDER) and involved a global network of researchers.  This panel will revolve around three of the project’s key themes, with a particular emphasis on findings from the southern African sub-region.

The first theme relates to the conceptualization, measurement, and temporal dynamics of Africa’s middle class.  Although income-based measures are frequently used, these may obscure the more complex characteristics of the middle class, such as their employment, education, and consumption profiles.  Using a variety of household surveys for countries such as Zambia, South Africa, Mozambique, and Malawi, one paper will employ more nuanced measures to assess how much the middle class has grown in these specific countries over the last decade and analyze whether there is actually a unified middle class across the sub-region.  This paper also examines whether the middle classes have grown in these countries even as other citizens have become poorer, leading to growing inequality.

The second theme relates to the political participation of the middle class vis-à-vis other socioeconomic groups. A case study of Zambia is presented that looks at the political influence of that country’s middle class from a historical perspective.  Using the Zambia’s 2008 Governance Survey, the paper also explores whether the middle classes are more likely to vote than their poorer counterparts and whether they are more likely to trust key political institutions, such as the police, the presidency, the parliament, and the electoral commission. The results suggest that the middle class may be less actively engaged in democratic behaviors but more skeptical of democratic institutions.

A final paper will examine whether socioeconomic differences or other types of cleavages are more salient in explaining not only political participation but also policy preferences of African citizens.  With a specific focus on South Africa and building on Afrobarometer and other related data, this paper considers whether class is becoming more relevant than race and ethnicity with regards to partisan affinities, voting, protest behavior, and attitudes towards national economic and pro-poor policies.

Overall, the panel directly addresses the conference theme by examining whether Africa’s middle class represent responsible and engaged citizens.  The papers collectively question conventional portrayals of the middle class as either unequivocally positive for economic and political transformation or as supporters of the status quo, thereby providing a much more diverse understanding of Africa’s middle class than has been recently portrayed in the media.