Class puts Soweto residents at odds

2013-05-05 14:00

Study due to be released shows ‘phakathi’ may not necessarily be better off

It used to be depicted in moody black-and-white photographs, with smoke from coal fires hovering above matchbox houses.

Today Soweto’s image is far more nuanced, with upmarket bonded homes near squalid shacks, and 66% of residents classifying ­themselves as “phakathi” (essentially middle class).

A landmark study to be released this week, titled Class in Soweto, reveals how Sowetans who classify themselves as middle class may not earn or own more than their ­working class counterparts, and many also live in freestanding or ­back yard shacks.

However, they were more likely to display positive attitudes, ­describing themselves as “happy”, “free”, “professional”, “fortunate” and better off than their ­neighbours.

This week, the University of Cape Town’s Unilever Institute of Strategic Marketing released research ­showing the size of the black ­middle class had doubled in the past eight years, outnumbering their white counterparts.

In ­monetary terms, these were ­households ­earning between ­ R16 000 and ­R50 000 a month.

But the study’s lead author, sociology Professor Peter Alexander of the University of Johannesburg, said they allowed their respondents to classify themselves. According to him, most said they straddled traditional class lines, with “two thirds saying they were both middle class and something else”.

Despite this, his research team were shocked by how poor people in Soweto really are.

“We didn’t understand the level of poverty to be honest,” Alexander said.

The study also details the ­“survivalist self-employed”, those too poor to be jobless who eke out a living by trading and doing piece jobs. They identified themselves as “low class” who “can’t afford life”.

Class mobility, according to the study, was top of mind among the young, with respondents indicating that a “positive mind-set, ­confidence and a strong work ­ethic” were key to an “upgrade” in income and status.

A respondent, identified as Mbulelo, told researchers: “Yes it is possible (to change class) because in life you have to upgrade. You can’t live in a shack for the rest of your life. You have dreams and you tell yourself that ‘this is what I want to achieve with my life’.” – Nicki Gules

Soweto at a glance

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