As the gap between rich and poor increases it’s getting harder for people – the average middle-class South African included – to see what the rich earn and not feel resentful. Picture: iStock/Gallo Images
As South Africa prepares for elections on 8 May 2019, the
black middle class has started to weave its way to the forefront of campaigning
promises, media analyses and debates about inequality in the country. As many
speculate about the political desires of this class identity, few have
attempted to engage directly with those of them who are young and frustrated at
the pace of socioeconomic change. Until recently, there has been a policy gap
in responding to the middle class and seeing them as important conduits of
redistributive justice in a highly unequal society.
Jeopardy, a new study launched at the Wits School of Governance last week,
explores race, class and gender dynamics among the South African black middle
class. This group has aptly been deemed the "precariat class" in some
circles, because it exists in relative privilege and disadvantage.
The study, which includes a documentary and survey of 100
black South Africans, is one of the first iterations of understanding
complexities of black middle class identity in South Africa. It is also unique
in its prominent focus on 19-36 year olds, who have been largely missing from
contemporary analyses which focus on older state-employed benefactors of
the transition to democracy. Most importantly, it begins to look at the role of
"black tax" in alleviating inequality in South Africa.
The term "black
diamonds" has been thrown around countless times in the past few
years. From market
researchers beckoning investors to look to an untapped market, to remarks
linking them to Kenny Kunene's insatiable appetite for sushi. Even in political
rhetoric, the Economic Freedom Fighters has both bemoaned
with the black middle class – using them as pawn in political campaigns over
the years. The Democratic
Alliance has similarly promised to get rid of "black tax" if
elected, failing to understand the socioeconomic and cultural importance of
remittances to the sustenance of families and poverty alleviation in South Africa.
Defining the black
The first challenge begins with defining the black middle
class. Because of its high levels of poverty (particularly among black people),
South Africa's literal middle class would constitute those earning R380 – R1 140
net income per month. The findings are jarring: Statistics South Africa's 2015
upper income poverty line is at R992.
The literal middle falls away as a useful definition amid
such high levels of poverty. In fact, depending on the definition used, South
Africa's middle class would vary from 13.5% to 43.2% of the population. In
Triple Jeopardy, R5 600 – R40 000 net income per month was used, informed by a 2013
study that determined the middle class by typically middle-class careers,
including managers, senior
officials, legislators, professionals (such as teachers and nurses), associate
professionals, technicians and clerks.
the gap between R5 600 and R40 000 is wide, it allows us to unpack some of
emerging dynamics among the black middle class, and avoid using simplistic
definitions that do not acknowledge complexity of the South African case.
Black tax and the
real work of income redistribution
A recent Time Magazine
article highlighted that among growing inequalities in South Africa the black
middle class is also slowly growing. In fact, the black middle class has doubled
in size over the past 25 years, so much so that levels of inequality among
black South Africans are among the highest in the country. More frightening, is
that some studies have found that if black South Africans were a country, they
would have the highest levels of inequality in the world. It would be remiss to
demonise this accumulation of income by black professionals and liken their
livelihood strategies to their white counterparts who still fair far better. Income
alone is not the sole determinant of socioeconomic resilience.
One challenge of using income as the primary measure of
inequality is the lack of interrogation into how black income earners use their
resources. Income indicators typically mask differences along race and gender
lines. The study finds that 58% of respondents send remittances home to family
(primarily parents and siblings) even in contexts where 32% where never or
often unable to meet their monthly obligations.
Furthermore, women (including transwomen) felt the burden of
remittances more sharply – given consistently lower levels of income across the
board. Another contribution to this gendered burden of black tax, is the unpaid
care work that women are often expected to do in a household, which adds to the
burden of supporting immediate and extended family members.
Rather than look to the need for remittances as a form of
exploitation by family members, thus pathologising this income transfer
dynamic, more needs to be done to understand the context in which it is
necessary. Measures of inequality assume households to be isolated entities,
unconnected to others across the country. In fact, many black South African
middle income households are connected to working class households: 47%
indicated that their parents were not part of the middle class, neither were
their siblings (44%) or extended families (69%). Thus when more than half were
sending money home, they indicated that it was important for them to do so in
the context of hunger and poverty.
Rather than pathologise black tax, we need to politicise it
by understanding its historical origins in a racialised apartheid South Africa
that socially engineered black poverty. The beneficiaries of affirmative action,
education and employment are often still intimately connected to those who made
it possible for them to earn higher levels of income. The problem is not that
their families need income subsidies, but that South Africa's continued
capitalist system has further created structures that perpetuate poverty and
make the need for black tax a reality.
In this context, black tax does the real work of income
redistribution in South Africa. It also does the work of skills transfer,
emotional support, social cohesion and resiliency building that the state has
attempted and failed to do for survivors of apartheid and their offspring.
Thus earning R40 000 net income per month for a black
household sending remittances, is not the same as for other race groups – who
may enjoy the fruit of their earnings from a much earlier age. This is
confirmed in the findings: at
a very young age 27% of respondents aged 19-25 are already breadwinners – at a
time when their counterparts may be completing tertiary education and building
a financial base from which to create stability.
the black middle class
We do not fully understand the consequences of such
dynamics, but research is beginning to catch up. Writing on the challenges of
planning for the future given precariousness, analysts highlight the
vulnerability of the black middle class: "Being in the stable middle class is not only
about location in the literal middle of the income distribution: it means being
free from poverty, not only today, but also tomorrow. It is about the freedom
and stability to engage in mid-and long-term planning. It is about access to
opportunities to move ahead in life, and about the financial cushion that
enables risk-taking and protection against shocks."
The impacts of this uncertainty affect not just the ability
of individuals to send critical resources home, but also to engage in the
necessary task of providing social capital (access to knowledge, opportunities
and livelihood strategies) for the future.
The real work of the black middle class is thus not only
earning an income at higher levels in society, but addressing the continuous
forms of socioeconomic inequality in ways that are gendered and racialised in
post-apartheid South Africa. Any form of post-apartheid reconstruction needs to
have at the core of its policies this nuanced understanding of the role the
black middle class in South Africa. If only election campaigns could catch up
to this nuance.
- Masana Ndinga-Kanga is lead
researcher of the Triple Jeopardy report and documentary, and senior fellow at
the Atlantic Fellowship for Social and Economic Equity at the London School of
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