Suburban apathy

2011-12-20 00:00

TWO years ago, I lamented in this column the disappointing role of the middle class, especially the black component of it, in politics and community development. I am troubled by the fact that very little has changed since and that my attempts to change this in my own circle of relationships have been largely fruitless.

I think this is because, like other change agents in society including political parties — such as the media and civil society formations — I have not fully understood the underlying reasons for middle-class apathy in the face of decline in political morality, politicians’ credibility and growing corruption.

A body of knowledge is emerging that suggests that there is a growing role for the middle class in politics in the emerging countries, especially in Brazil, India and China, Indonesia, Argentina, Chile, Mexico and Turkey.

Unfortunately, it seems that there have not been similar studies on Africa and South Africa in particular. Studies on the economics of the black diamond are not sufficient for us to understand why middle-class people are aloof and passive citizens.

Studies elsewhere suggest that middle-class people are change agents because they tend to demand abstract rights and freedoms related to deepening democracy and good governance, especially the freedoms of expression and association as well as the right to essential public services without a bribe.

The underclass, on the other hand, is found to be particularly concerned with freedom from poverty. These two need to be linked for lasting change to happen.

It is also found that this class cannot be easily lured through votes buying by politicians, government spin or opposition parties’ rhetoric. It has the linguistic, cultural and financial capacities to bring about serious positive change in a political life of an emerging democracy such as ours.


In South Africa the middle class is a very small proportion of the total population and although it is the overwhelming class among white people, it is much smaller among black people. With unemployment at about 40% and generally much higher among black people, the number of the poor is much larger than the middle class.

The white middle class is quite active and is behind the resurgence of the Democratic Alliance as a new home for this class. It is shaping the party’s largely liberal political and economic outlook. It also disproportionately frames the national debate and is able to force the government’s hand through its influence on public opinion and its ability to use litigation. Fears that alternative ideologies, corruption and other ills would erode its privileges have helped galvanise this group into action.

The black middle class seems not to have a similar drive to bring about change. It seems when corruption gets to the point where salaries are not paid and municipalities fail to provide essential services like electricity, then the black diamond will be galvanised into action.

In the mobilising efforts I have made, I have been astounded by the low level of consciousness about how to bring about change, how government systems work and what rights we have to demand better support and services from our government.

Yet, like the poor in their areas, they are disgruntled about poor leadership, weak government services, corruption and incompetence. It seems that unless we meet this disgruntlement with information on how they can stand up and be counted, challenge their councillors with complaints and advice, and establish their own community initiatives, there will be no change for the people of KwaHhobhu or Ward 3 broadly, where I come from.

Well-to-do citizens have to organise themselves and be ready to lead the struggles of the poor when they finally get fed up with unfulfilled promises. But it seems that if we do not devise ways of encouraging them to act collectively, they will be forced by the continuing decline in the standard of living to become active citizens.

We should realise, however, that nothing will change until we see that something is not going right and become in involved in influencing a positive change for the benefit of all. As a famous Kwaito song put it: “Uzoyothola kanjani uhlel’ ekhoneni?” (What can you achieve while sulking in the corner?).

The trouble is that the corner that the middle class occupies is relatively comfortable because they can afford to buy tanks to harvest rain water during times of shortage. Some have sourced electricity directly from Eskom. Some have disposable cash to sustain their survival.

The challenge is that we are not thinking seriously enough about the sea of poverty and discontent around us.

We just cannot sit back and seem helpless when we have the faculties, the networks, the ideas, and the linguistic devices to communicate to authorities and in communities to cause community development.



• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue.


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