History has poisoned the fruits of the black middle class


Discussions about the black middle class cover sociological and economic definitions, political identities and repertoires of the black middle class, the anger and frustration in workplaces, where they often feel disrespected by their white counterparts, and the “black tax”.

A less frequently interrogated, but every bit as important, experience is black middle-class guilt.

It has some relation to the notion of black tax – giving money to or otherwise supporting impoverished relatives – but does not always depend on it to find expression.

Black middle-class guilt arises from one’s success in the face of unprecedented levels of unemployment, poverty and inequality. This induces feelings of guilt, making it hard to enjoy having “made it”. These feelings are experienced in urban spaces, in the workplace and in our townships and rural areas, where one comes across childhood friends, neighbours and relatives who were unable to get a good education or the opportunities to achieve upward class mobility.

Multibillionaire luxury brands mogul Johann Rupert recently confessed that he is kept awake at night by the possibility of an attack on the middle class and the rich by the unemployed and the poor. His concern is not about social justice and social cohesion, but rather about how growing class tensions will make selling luxury brands difficult, because the middle class and the rich will want to conceal their wealth.

Luxury brands can act as markers signifying social and economic status. Concealment has to do with the poor’s suspected envy of the middle class and the implications of that.

Figures released by Statistics South Africa continue to paint a depressing picture of South Africa, with workless multitudes increasingly feeling hopelessness and worthlessness. Without decent employment, many young people cannot establish their own households and thus cannot make the transition to adulthood. They feel their lives are wasted.

These sentiments set the scene for envy, which is always destructive. Envy involves the desire to substitute. The unemployed and the unemployable will find the enrichment of the black middle class offensive.

Guilt is usually concerned with the confirmation or suspicion that you have offended another.

Two forms of guilt emerge: guilt during a moment of self-critique, and strategic guilt.

The former can drive critical moments of recognition – for example, the sudden realisation of the irrationality and ambiguity of the expensive car (or clothes, watches, colognes) that becomes apparent when driving home to uncles and aunts, and siblings without shoes or proper clothing or food. And you have not improved your own parents’ house, outside which your fancy car will be parked.

While they celebrate your fancy car and offer a warm welcome, you silently suffer psychological afflictions offset by your irrational material acquisitions and the reality of how bad things really are at home. These psychological afflictions are very seldom vocalised.

Strategic guilt is concerned with how guilt becomes the reason to conceal expensive accessories so as to maintain peace. It may cause members of the black middle class to decide against buying luxury jewellery, or buy but conceal the expensive 18-year-old whisky and opt, instead, for something consumed by your stagnant childhood friends in the township.

This concealment of markers is a negotiation of the possibility – and therefore anticipation – of people having certain impressions about you. It is a sense of the envy others might feel towards you.

Our colonial and apartheid history configured black life in ways that entrenched multigenerational poverty and unemployment. Thus many black middle-class people are obliged to pay black tax. Black tax is a function of guilt.

Giving money to relatives becomes a situation in which giving is no longer an act of altruism but, rather, an act of impression management and negotiating peace. Paying black tax becomes a device to soothe the psychological torment of guilt. Failure to oblige has its own repercussions.

As the economy continues on its uninspiring path of inequitable distribution, with rising levels of hopelessness among the unemployed and the working poor (people in poorly remunerated, no-benefit jobs), as well as an upwardly mobile middle class, tensions are set to rise.

The problem is structural, inherited from the past, but perpetuated by the current hegemonic economic model. The real effect is always felt at the micro level – in households and communities, in the everyday lives of South Africans.

Far from being the “promised land”, the black middle class highlights the complexities of being black and upwardly mobile in a deeply unequal and fragmented post-apartheid South Africa.

For the present, however, we have no choice but to live in the complexity of what being black and middle class means.

Thabang Sefalafala is a PhD student at the University of the Witwatersrand.

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