Eusebius McKaiser

Give the middle class a break

2012-11-01 07:26

Eusebius McKaiser

I feel sorry for middle class South Africans. I really do.

And no doubt many people will be horrified at this empathy for the "haves" in a country with criminal levels of inequality. Millions of South Africans either live in poverty or are worse off than families headed by skilled professionals. Given this context, I am fully prepared for hasty criticism that one's empathy should be spared for the poor. But here is why I think middle class South Africans need a break.

Who are they?
First, it is, of course, not obvious who counts as "middle class". Policy experts disagree on this classificatory question but suffice to say that teachers, nurses, and corporate sector professionals are all (at the very least) middle class in the context of South Africa.

These are the men and women who work very hard to enable their children to not fall a class bracket below the family's bracket, and to increase the chances of their children having a shot at earning and living better than mom and dad. So why do I feel sorry for this economically active lot?

Because middle class South Africans are caught between a rock and a hard place: not poor enough to be the object of others' pity, nor rich enough to easily escape the weaknesses of the state. And yet, despite being caught in this horrible spot, it is precisely this crop of skilled professionals and their children that is key to the entrenchment of a deep and enduring democratic culture in South Africa.

A democracy without a stable middle class is a permanently fragile democracy. So we cannot afford to ignore the pressures that the middle class face. There is a short-term political gain, however, for leaders to exercise a kind of moral triage, focusing their energies only on the worst off in society.

But we need to also strengthen the middle class, not because we are indifferent to the plight of the poor, but because the fate of both the poor and the middle class depend in part on a stable middle class that has the capacity to help build a job creating economy, and who can be active participants in a deliberative and participatory model of democracy.

And yet, right now, we are making it more difficult rather than less difficult for middle class South Africans to play this crucial economic and political role.

Carrying extra weight

The most recent example of this thoughtless state pressure on the middle class is the "request" of the Gauteng Education Department that schools in the suburbs should accept up to forty learners per classroom. The idea is to optimise the use of resources in better off schools so as to take off pressure from schools that are overcrowded. In effect middle class families must act as a prophylactic against the failures of the state education system.

This sounds lofty.

Which middle class bastard will want to openly deny that a poor child has a right to education despite their bad circumstantial luck of being born into a poor family? And which heartless middle class person would openly claim to have no moral duties to care about those drowning in a sea of undemocratic poverty? And given that much of this social injustice is structural and historic in origin how can suburban families pretend that only merit and hard work explain their relative wealth?

But here is the snag: middle class families already pay a gigantic proportion of their income in the form of very efficiently collected state taxes. Of course many middle class parents wrongly do not pay school fees when they can afford to. And beyond compulsory taxes we all have at least weak moral duties as individuals to help others worse off than us if we can do so without any real cost to ourselves.

The true sin

But the true sin here that is not spoken about enough is a political one. A near systematically inefficient, ineffective and corrupt South African state wants citizens who already contribute gigantically to the state's coffers to also bail out an underperforming state. That is grossly unfair. It amounts to class blackmail. Middle class South Africans are made to feel guilty about their relative wealth when the true object of our collective citizenship horror should be the state.

The state is not essentially short of funds. So why keep demanding more from the middle class? The state is, however, short of a critical number of morally decent men and women who can properly spend and manage existing resources.

The poor and the middle class should co-operate and collectively hold the state to account for its weaknesses. Class warfare will benefit no one. Meanwhile, politicians and self-appointed elders should give the middle class a break. 

McKaiser is the author of best-selling A Bantu in my Bathroom. He launches this collection of essays about race, sexuality and other uncomfortable South African topics tonight (Thursday 1 November) at 6:30pm, Exclusive Books, Loch Logan, Bloemfontein. All are welcome. Follow him on twitter @eusebius

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