Democracy’s class act

2013-12-01 14:00

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Will the black middle class drop the ANC?

Recent years have seen mounting enthusiasm about African development and the perceived role played by the African middle class.

The members of the middle class are presented not merely as the “drivers of development”, but as the “drivers of democracy”.

So the question must be posed as to whether an increasingly consumerist class will consistently support progressive causes, rather than defend its recent elevation into the ranks of the haves against the broad masses of have-nots.

The governing ANC-led alliance has become the major fountain of opportunity for a black majority and, as a result, the party-state has become the fulcrum around which upward social mobility revolves for historically disadvantaged segments of the population.


We cannot talk sensibly about the class structure of post-apartheid South Africa without linking it to the possession of power within its political economy. The small, politically conscious, black middle class that emerged out of a handful of mission schools played a key role in forming the ANC in 1912 to protest against oppressive impositions.

There is widespread recognition that the smallness of the African middle class, its limited access to property, and the denial of opportunities by the various racial restrictions (especially after 1948) thrust it into an alliance with the working class, thus transforming the

ANC into a mass movement and forming the nationalist cross-class alliance with the SA Communist Party.

But black middle class support for the liberation project was never unanimous and never unambiguous. Its involvement in official structures under apartheid, from the homeland project to bantustan leaderships, always demonstrated a marked political ambiguity towards the ANC’s liberation.

This does not refute the narrative of the role of the black middle class and working class under the liberation movement, but it certainly complicates it.

At the dawn of democracy, the size of the black middle class was still remarkably modest, and the black middle class of today has been created by the ANC through various processes.

Class formation

In theory, the ANC selects individuals for positions in “strategic centres of power”, not merely according to their dedication to revolutionary duties but also according to their qualifications and abilities. But in practice, there is a tendency to prioritise party loyalty over merit.

Deployment has since emerged as a major opportunity to ascend the class structure.

The second instrument of class formation has been the ANC’s aggressive strategy of affirmative action. The party has sought to render the public sector “demographically representative” of the population. This has massively widened access for its own political constituency to state employment in terms of remuneration, which today appears to be relatively generous.

Thirdly, the ANC has increased educational opportunities for blacks at secondary and tertiary levels through the deracialisation of education, with these institutions emerging as key sites for the production of class advantage.

Finally, the most explicit strategy of class formation pursued by the ANC has been BEE, with the objective of challenging white domination in the corporate structure and promoting the development of a black capitalist class, thereby bridging the post-1994 separation of black political and white economic power.

The results have been mixed and disappointing – the share ownership of the majority of large and medium-sized firms still remains overwhelmingly white.

Nevertheless, the topmost corporate rank has been leavened by the politically leveraged development of a small, enormously rich, black elite, alongside an increase in the proportion of black managers as companies are pressured to render BEE more “broad-based”.

The bonds that bind

The argument that follows is that a black elite and middle class is not likely to bite the hand of the party-state that feeds it.

But as the black middle class becomes more consolidated and varied, its political orientations are likely to diversify.

Its current alignment to the ANC is under stress and opposition parties are targeting it as an attractive constituency. The DA and Agang?SA represent major threats to the bond that binds the black middle class to the ANC.

A drift of black middle class support to opposition parties would represent a major symbolic defeat to the ANC, of far wider importance than merely the loss of votes it would entail.

Meanwhile, it is important to stress that the question of whether the black middle class will abandon the ANC is logically quite separate from that of whether the expansion and greater diversity of the black middle class will contribute to the consolidation of democracy.

It will take more than the defection of the black middle class from the ANC to promote a more democratic polity.


Consequently, I propose that the extensive alignment of the black middle class to the party-state and the continuing social distance between races throws doubt upon the potential for convergence within the context of party politics.

Despite its best efforts, the DA is likely to hit its racial ceiling.

But this does not mean that the black middle class is not in line to make a significant contribution to democracy. Although surveys indicate they do not as yet display high levels of involvement in independent civil society, it is reasonable to surmise that this will grow.

Even if black middle class voters choose to stop short of voting against the ANC, we can be assured of their growing demands for accountability.

Despite the black middle class being a politically progressive force for democracy historically, I would warn against the adoption of any heroic narrative about their role in the current struggle for democracy.

Hybrid governance?

Consequently, it is not wholly unlikely that the black middle class might tolerate the drift of ANC rule towards a hybrid form of governance where democratic forms belie a reality of authoritarian rule.

Despite this gloomy prognosis, the growth of the black middle class will add to political diversity and demand greater accountability from society’s rulers, consequently strengthening democratic trends.

There are no easy solutions to the potential rearrangement of political parties, the breach of the ANC’s multiclass alignment and the rise of class tensions, but we may rest assured that the black middle class will play an important role, for good or ill, in determining the future of South African democracy.

»?This is an edited version of Southall’s address at the annual Van Zyl Slabbert Lecture at the University of Cape Town

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