The black middle class is nothing but a myth

2015-07-28 08:11

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City Press did me a favour last week by publishing “Black-tax albatross”, which can be summarised in a few words: the vulnerability and myth of a black middle class. I have long argued that we don’t have a true black “middle class”, certainly not comparable with the resources, strength and stability of the white middle class or the middle class in Europe, although the economic crisis has taken its toll on them. 

The black middle class is a completely different proposition from the white middle class, given our racist history, which consciously and legally prohibited the emergence of a black capitalist and middle class. 

The white middle class, built over several decades under apartheid, has stronger roots and is more resourceful and resilient, unlike the black middle class that emerged after 1994, and had to struggle to emerge from the impoverished working class in the townships, with little or no resources to start with. 

I think the white-dominated media have blown the existence of a black middle class out of proportion to the hard social realities and challenges it inherited after 1994 and which confront it daily. The fact that the report stated that even those earning as little as R4 100 are classified as middle class bears testimony to my contention that the black middle class is largely a social myth, and that we need to revisit and redefine what a middle class really is and what it represents. A monthly income of between R6 000 and R8 000 does not justify the middle class label, given the unforgiving high cost of living. 

Therefore, borrowing from Marxist terminology, probably the bulk of the black middle class is so vulnerable and fragile it is not truly a class 
in itself. 

We also need to distinguish between an upper and lower middle class based on income, assets, formal education and qualifications. In this regard, most would be in the ranks of the lower middle class, but low enough to hardly be distinguishable from the working class, which is why there is considerable overlap between the black working and middle classes. 

Due to the discriminatory designs of apartheid, the white middle class was historically a fairly embedded, privileged and protected class that enjoyed fairly high living standards, great residential and town infrastructure, abundant and efficient municipal services and amenities and many educational and job/career opportunities. 

There was no such luck for the black middle class, which had to struggle to emerge from poverty and degradation in the townships, where the most basic facilities and job/economic opportunities were absent. 

If one places the fragile existence of the bulk of the black middle class in a broader perspective, especially its weaker sections that still reside in the townships, then the debilitating and devastating global economic crisis since 2008 must have taken its toll on it. Inevitably, I think members of the black middle class – including those in white suburbia – experienced a significant decline in living standards and prospects for upward mobility. 
Relevant research will probably show that most repossessions of houses and cars due to economic stress were from the black middle class. I know that when times become hard and people cannot cope with rising mortgage payments or rents and other expenses, they return to their township families. 

This return of the black middle class into the working class during periods of economic crises is a global and historical trend. But in South Africa and the rest of Africa, it is the vulnerability of the black and African middle class that could hasten this trend with diminishing prospects of returning to its former social status through continued economic crisis. 

The vulnerability of the black middle class is compounded by the effect of deep cultural, social and historic links between black urban and rural areas which occurred under apartheid and required the remittance of a portion of workers’ wages to their families and to struggling family members in townships by those living in suburbia. The white middle class does not have to contend with these culturally and socially induced financial responsibilities. 

The sociological picture about the insecure and distressing fate of probably most of the black middle class in tough economic times is one that should engender empathy. It also raises serious questions about its future, including its political future, in the competition for its support between an ailing ANC and the DA, whose leader Mmusi Maimane seems to appeal to it and greatly succeeds in winning its support in next year’s local government elections. 

I do not have a problem with the middle class, but I wish the black middle class was stronger and more stable. 

The struggle for social justice and socialism has nothing in common with an antipathy or aversion to the middle class, certainly not a struggling black middle class that consumes a fraction of this country’s wealth. These struggles are aimed at white monopoly capital and a small, megarich black elite that joined them after 1994. 

Harvey is a political writer, commentator and author

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