Change of fortune: Frugal or fragile?

2015-04-26 15:00

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SA’s democratic dispensation has shackled the new black middle class to a modern form of slavery – indebtedness to glitzy, branded products

Money From Nothing by Deborah James

Wits University Press

304 pages


South Africa’s democratic transition was much celebrated worldwide for liberating the previously disenfranchised.

But as the country switched from a Moscow-aligned emphasis on nationalising of assets to a neoliberal-style capitalist economy, and as its black middle class expanded rapidly, it began to appear that the freedom to exercise political choice was being paralleled – even outstripped – by the freedom to engage in conspicuous consumption. ‘I didn’t join the revolution to be poor’, said one prominent government spokesman.

The media tells us that what are consumed are often glitzy and even kitsch goods and branded products. The allegedly shallow values of the newly upwardly mobile, labelled as ‘black diamonds’, ‘coconuts’, or ‘cheeses’, have been much criticised, because the superficiality of consumerism does not seem to fit with the seriousness of the egalitarian aspirations that originally motivated South Africa’s transition.

Of particular concern to those in the policy world is how the pursuit of these new forms of consumption is attended by stress and suffering. The moment of freedom was accompanied, and made possible, by something with the appearance of its opposite: that is, indebtedness, often described as the modern equivalent of slavery.

The offering and taking up of credit was expanded and ‘democratised’ in an unprecedented way after 1994, and there has been much decrying of the unsustainable levels of borrowing that have resulted.


The new professionals: frugal or fragile?

In the course of my search for those who might be considered as representatives of the new middle class, I find myself sitting in the smartly-apportioned and air-conditioned office of Abigail Mlate, on the 5th floor of an office block in central Pretoria. Our conversation ranges across a variety of topics: her upbringing and education, her family, her plans for her daughter’s future. We also talk about the differences between her mother’s generation and her own. The daughter of a policeman and a schoolteacher, she was raised in a single-parent family by her mother who paid for her education in its entirety. The private school she attended, in one of South Africa’s former bantustans, Bophutatswana, a little way to the north, gave her a good educational grounding and paved the way for her to attend university. For a while she worked in a middle-range job in social welfare, but soon afterwards she did a post-graduate degree, and shortly after that was appointed to a senior position in a government department in Pretoria.

There are several features that distinguish her story from that of someone who might hold a similar government job in another country. One is the speed of her upward mobility. Compared to the career trajectory of her own mother, her own rise was positively meteoric. As with many young black South Africans in similar circumstances, her elevated position and her swift promotion were in large part due to opportunities forthcoming after the country’s apartheid racial order was overturned in 1994. Another thing that distinguishes her position, closely but inversely related to the rapidity of this rise in status, is the fact that several close family members—aunts, nephews and nieces—share neither her educational qualifications nor her upward trajectory. Her aunts are domestic servants, who are experiencing some difficulty in putting their children through school. She is often asked to provide help (in material and other terms) to these relatives.

But there are also complex threads which tie her story to longer-standing social arrangements. If there is a shift in class positions evident in this story, it was the one which occurred not in her own life course but in that of the previous generation. The difference between Abigail and her cousins owes itself to her mother’s having “pulled herself up” to become a teacher, in contrast to her aunts (and their children) who remained in menial work. A further striking continuity between the generations can be discerned if one looks at her mother’s and her own conjugal careers. Both marriages linked people of similar social status, but both dissolved quite swiftly. In Abigail’s own case, her partner was a graduate, as she was. One of the key moments of disagreement between them came when he objected to her “wasting money” on her own further education rather than saving it for the education of their daughter. Rather than accepting this line of argument, she saw it as a sign of his unwillingness to accept that his wife might become better educated than he. He could not accept that ultimately she might, as a result of her superior achievements, be unwilling to kowtow. “It’s that patriarchal thinking that ‘if she get this Masters then she will be better off than me. And I’m the man here so she will have to listen to what I say …,’” as she puts it.

…From Abigail’s story?… it is clear that her position is neither as precarious nor as oriented to the flashy and unsustainable expenditure of money as some … media accounts suggest. Displaying a self-reflexivity that is characteristic of people in this new position, Abigail has considered opinions on the “new black middle class,” of which she acknowledges she herself could be reckoned a member. Acknowledging the role of state employment, she draws attention to the circumstances which have enabled the rise in her own fortunes, to “the political climate currently, and?… issues around broad-based black economic empowerment programs that government has introduced.” But alongside “the political change—the opportunities that are open to us—what we call disadvantaged groups,” she also emphasises the fact that she went to a good school, and to university. In short, she recognises both the dependence of her success on the post-apartheid state which gave her the chance of a high-level job, and the much earlier investments in education which were undertaken through the far-sighted individual efforts of her mother. As she put it, her mother “had certain expectations?…?‘if I put my last money on my two daughters, I know hopefully one day they will become better people.’” In many of my subsequent discussions with people in relatively senior jobs in government or the state-owned enterprises, I find that many of them fit a similar description. It is their parents, pre-1994, who made the educational investment necessary to their taking up positions as part of the post-1994 dispensation. Intergenerational mobility over the last few decades has been largely determined, and opportunities restricted, by which side of the class division people were originally positioned (Seekings and Nattrass 2006:331).

Making clear the robustness and enduring character of intergenerational strategies, Abigail’s future plans for her own daughter echo those which her mother had for her; and put a similar stress on judicious expenditure and investment. Repudiating her ex-husband’s idea that spending money on her own education would preclude funding that of her daughter, Abigail’s strategy encompasses both. She intends to send her daughter “to a good school” and to provide her with higher education.

But she also states matters in a more classically middle-class vein which balances privilege with due consideration, gratification with necessary delay and liberal agency with context and structure. She stresses both the importance of her daughter’s individual “free choice” while emphasising the importance of educating her about the financial constraints which might narrow that choice.

“I explain, and I have noticed that when you talk to her and explain to her – my daughter is not the kind of child that will start crying in a store because she wants all these toys. My cousins are amazed, because I always talk to her. She always knows that when she asks for something she needs to acknowledge the fact that mummy has money, or mummy doesn’t have money. And if I do have money, I tell her ‘this month I think I can be able to buy you that thing that you want’. And through that engagement I have noticed now that she starts to understand that ‘you don’t just get things just like that, you plan things’. And it really helps, because I’m never frustrated when I go shopping with her. She won’t sulk. She must realise that you have to work hard, that you have to have delayed gratification.”

Abigail thus points to the importance of taking a measured attitude towards consumption. Further stressing this, she points out that, as a divorced mother, she often faces pressures to match the expenditure of those who raise their children in couples. “You want to keep up with your friends who have husbands, to say ‘I need to show them?…?I am adequate, I can take my daughter, I can have the same life they have even though I am a single parent.’” It is necessary, then, to spend money in the here and now to meet social expectations and challenge negative views of single parenthood. But this is balanced by a stress on the importance of forward planning and investment – in part to counteract the possible disadvantages of this unmarried status.

There is an emphasis in Abigail’s story on the strength of mother-daughter bonds. Also acknowledged is her connection to – yet partial disconnection and independence from – a wider set of kinsmen. This complex intertwining of causalities and themes extends beyond the boundaries of both the new black middle class, however named, and of its longer-standing or “old” equivalent.

Whether the much-written-about “black diamond” category is merely putative and “media-invented” or has elements of objective fact, then, similar narratives can be traced in a much wider setting. Encompassing both aspiration for one’s own family and concern for a more extended set of kin or neighbors, it transcends prophecies about either the imminent success—or alternatively the prospective drastic failure—of the newly upwardly mobile in the new South Africa. Those who have well-paid/salaried positions, like Abigail, are experiencing intensifying claims on their resources, but are balancing these against new bids to acquire freedom and independence. They may be expected to help educate siblings’ children, or provide upkeep for other members of their natal families, but simultaneously find themselves escaping, or striving to remain beyond, the potentially crippling obligations, expenses and constraints of marriage. Individual narratives of status mobility, like Abigail’s, show the importance of life-course events such as marriage: challenging it, however, some state their plan to remain permanently outside the bridewealth circuit and the reach of prospective in-laws. Such narratives also illustrate the particular pressures and contradictions experienced by the large numbers of women responsible for bringing up their children alone: both those in this upwardly mobile group and those beyond it.

James is at the London School of Economics, where she has been doing

anthropological research on credit and indebtedness in SA over the past five years.

She is in the country on an author tour

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