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A Touch of Class

South Africa’s ’emerging black middle class’ seems to get a lot of press in certain quarters. While consumer studies convince us of this growing phenomenon, there is another argument that the divide between the rich and poor remains strictly racial: poor blacks on one side and rich whites on the other. While it is irrefutable that unemployment and poverty plague large sections of the population (proportionately this constitutes a black majority) the visibility and presence of new class structures in South Africa is not coming up for scrutiny beyond the racial categories we inherited from apartheid.

It seems that these historical economic divisions are evoked to serve strategic political objectives, and often deflect attention away from the developing class structures linked with budding democracies. Returning exiles, the nomenklatura in government, and a new generation of educated black individuals who have access to employment and business opportunities previously denied them, all challenge us to re-examine class past the political agendas of those that mediate the debates around race.

This development of new class structures in the post-colony and in developing democracies is by no means unique to South Africa. The case of Latin America and the changing class structures in Eastern Europe offer an opportunity for invaluable comparison.

In Latin America, the classical Marxist class structure is in part replaced by categories of ‘elites’ in society who have certain privileges secured through new governmental structures. These are not individuals, but groups of people in influential positions across government and business. They are able to affect change while reaping the economic benefits of their privileged positions.

Influential elites in both Latin America and Eastern Europe also exist in the church, military, and amongst the leaders of political movements on the populist left and right. These latter categories of elites are potentially sites of growth and evolution in South Africa, depending on political and economic advancement.

It will be interesting to see how the growing number of evangelical churches might offer a space for new forms of economic elitism.

Observation of our neighbouring states reveals the impact of military elitism, where these groups can either incite revolution or secure political persuasion. This form of elitism is often self-serving and secures economic benefits from almost any quarter, regardless of the ideology represented by the faction. While the military structure in South Africa right now is fundamentally different from countries in Latin America or neighbouring African states, a more revealing analogy might be arms manufacture and sales in South Africa.

Perhaps the most significant development in leftist movements in recent times in South Africa has been organised around the issues of HIV/Aids. This site is symbolic and vital to the evolution of classes in society because it resurrects the classical Marxist model, which talks not only of class struggles but classes in struggle. Here the interests of political elites are in direct contestation with the ideological, legislative and economic rights of ‘other’ classes. In the case of the debates about the management of the HIV/Aids crisis, this ‘other’ class is imperative to the development of society as a whole because it forces the elites (in this case elites across the board) to be accountable to the democratic development of the society.

Dr. Mistry is Head of Television in the Wits School of Arts at the University of the Witwatersrand, where she teaches a range of courses in television theory and production, film analysis and history. She has worked as a filmmaker in New York and Vienna. Her research interests include public and community access broadcast. She holds a Ph.D in Cinema Studies from New York University.

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