There is a long history of disparagement of the middle classes. Traditionally the assumptions surrounding the middle classes have been ones of complacency, mediocrity and conservatism, but in South African there is often a special scorn reserved for the middle classes, particularly by politicians and social commentators. All this rhetoric, however, disregards the valuable economic role that the middle classes play and discounts their latent political power.
The recent National Day of Action, which saw tens of thousands of South Africans taking to the streets under the banner of the Save South Africa movement, was met with the usual derision. The marchers were depicted as self-serving members of the middle class who are out of touch with the realities of South Africa and the suffering of the poor. Predictably, they were castigated by labour unions and political commentators for only becoming politically engaged when their narrow class-interests were threatened by the dismissal of the Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan.
In their 6 April press statement Cosatu depicted the marchers as the champions and agents of ‘white monopoly capital’ and opponents of Radical Socio-Economic Transformation. In the usual combatant rhetoric that Cosatu favours, the middle-class protestors were labelled as the ‘enemies’ of the working class.
Even our president has at times contributed to the chorus of scorn for the middle classes. At the 2012 Mangaung conference he slammed ‘the clever Blacks’, (read Black middle class), who questioned his leadership of the ANC.
What labour unions and politicians fail to recognise, or publically acknowledge, is the valuable contribution that the middle classes make to the economy and the public coffers. Of the R 1.0699 trillion in tax revenue that was raised in 2016, R389.3 billion, derived from personal income tax. The bulk of this revenue stems from the much maligned middle and high income earners who, in the 2017 tax year will pay 45% personal income tax if their annual salaries exceed R 1.5 million.
Furthermore, value-added tax contributed R280.8 billion to the fiscus, while customs and excise duties brought in R151.8 billion. It stands to reason that middle and higher income earners, because of their purchasing and consumption patterns also make a direct contribution to the public coffers through these taxation instruments.
What becomes of this money that the hardworking middle and higher income earners yield to government? R R768.2 billion was earmarked for basic education in the 2017 budget and R576.2 billion was allocated to health care.
The middle classes, however, frequently feel that they have to make their own provisions with regards to health care and the education of their children, which comes and a great personal cost. In September 2016 Discovery Health, for example, announced an average premium increase of 10.2 % while in January 2017 BusinessTech reported that parents can be expected to pay up to R 235 960 per annum for their child to attend an elite private school.
The 2017 National Budget has also set aside R579.8 billion for social grants and Groundup reported in April 2017 that over 17 million South Africans rely on these social grants as their only source of income. Clearly South Africa has become a welfare state and it is largely the much-maligned middle and upper income salary earners who are funding this system.
The middle classes have been historically conceived to be apathetic. Critic and social commentator, Cyril Connolly is famously quoted as saying ‘middle class suburbs are incubators of apathy and delirium’. But the middle classes have proven to also have the potential to mobilise and overturn an unjust regime. It was the middle class’s rising sense of impatience and disgust with the Bourbon dynasty’s excesses that helped give rise to the French Revolution. Similarly, it was an alliance of workers and the middle class that deposed the Romanov dynasty in Russia, largely due to their callous indifference to the suffering of ordinary men and women.
It seems apparent that our president harbours dynastic dreams, with his children strategically placed to benefit from the influence that comes with his position. One wonders if the rising discontent that has manifested in the National Day of Protest and the subsequent march on 12 April, when a broad alliance of political parties set aside their differences to march to the Union Buildings, might not be the death knell of the nascent Zuma dynasty?
Francis Fukuyama, a political scientist and economist, writing in the Wall Street Journal (28/06/3013), states that ‘All over the world… today’s political turmoil has a common theme: the failure of governments to meet the rising expectations of the newly prosperous and educated’. This should give Jacob Zuma and senior members of the ANC pause for thought, lest the ‘clever blacks’ and the so-called ‘agents of white monopoly capital’ start to leverage their economic and social power.