The great middle class debate: Putting things into perspective

2014-01-22 10:00

So dedicated was the apartheid state to racist ideology that even the white working class enjoyed one of the highest standards of living in the world, especially of urban infrastructure, under conditions typical of what would constitute the middle class in other nations.

So why should the black middle class today be satisfied with less?

Ferial Haffajee’s column last week (“The middle class is not second class”, City Press, January 12 2014) hence begins an important public debate.

But it is precisely because of a racist past that deliberately prevented the emergence and growth of a black middle class that I cannot understand why there should be any serious political, social or moral problems with the existence and expectations of such a class, inevitable in any case following the negotiated political settlement in 1993.

It is, therefore, difficult to understand why Haffajee found it necessary to virtually apologise for raising her voice in the interests and aspirations of this class, especially since, when scrutinised, they are in fact basic material, democratic and social rights any middle class should have and enjoy.

In so doing, she repeats the fundamental mistake many on the left often make: that Marxist theory has some principled opposition to the existence of a thriving middle class.

Besides, the emergence of a significant black middle class was not only inevitable but a progressive development in our society, especially since no organisation could provide an effective alternative to a capitalist system which, in any case, fundamentally rests on conflict between the working class and the capitalist class, and never primarily between the working class and the middle class. Especially not of today’s nascent black middle class, whose parents were and mostly still are of the toiling black working class.

There is often a convergence between black working class and black middle class interests, especially where the latter still resides in townships.

But Haffajee’s argument for properly working robots, and against gaping and dangerous potholes on our roads, is important because it all has to do with decent, efficient and de- mocratised urban infrastructure.

This is especially so in a constitutional democracy, which on paper emphasises human and socioeconomic rights, especially the right to live in dignity, but often fails to deliver.

The key point in this debate is that people generally want and deserve much better infrastructural conditions.

When black workers from Soweto, including unionised and even militant ones, had opportunities to buy houses in suburbia, they did not hesitate.

And when a change in personal circumstances sometimes drove them back to the townships, they were most unhappy, simply because it meant going back to the poor and undignified social conditions they were born into. That is a hard and undeniable fact of our lives, and it includes what has happened to leading black figures in all facets of life.

»?Harvey is an independent political writer and Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe’s biographer

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