It’s not black and white in SA – it’s the working classes and the middle classes

The run-up to the 2016 local government elections was characterised by smear campaigns, fear-mongering, miscalculations and misutterances, which South Africans responded to through the ballot.

When the voting stations closed on August 3, politicians were on their phones with their representatives in poll stations, on their smart gadgets refreshing applications for the most updated poll data, or on television waiting for the Independent Electoral Commission’s verdict.

As opinion polls had suggested, the Democratic Alliance and, to a lesser extent, the Economic Freedom Fighters, had gained significant ground at the expense of the ANC.

The black middle classes had voted – but not for the party that created them.

Contrary to political science theories of middle classes and democracy, the black middle classes do not seem to reflect unwavering loyalty to the ANC – they seemed to bite the hand that feeds them.


In part, this shift of balance results from the ANC’s sense of entitlement to the loyalty of the black middle classes. Among others, e-tolls, the Fallist campaigns, the Nkandla debacle, and the inefficiency of parastatals such as Eskom, the SABC and SAA have been especially important to them.

Traditionally, middle classes do not go to the streets because of the need (in their own interpretation) to preserve a level of modesty and dignity and because they are probably occupied with work.

Not that the working class is not occupied with work. Unlike working classes, middle classes can afford more than the basic lifestyle so the “breaking point” is somewhat distant for them.

The Fallist street protests were unique because they involved young people who come from middle-class households. Frank Chikane’s son was among those detained.

The #FeesMustFall campaign wasn’t a street protest in the traditional sense. The target was university institutions and the centre of power – Parliament.

Similarly, the e-toll street-level protests did not take off. They would launch, except in a different time and in a different form. The middle classes deferred these protests to where it matters most – the polls.

Voting doesn’t take unnecessary time from work and it’s not “undignified”, but it is a powerful protest tool.

The ANC misread the writing on the wall. ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe is on record dismissing e-toll protests as “misplaced and emotional”. He couldn’t have been more wrong.

President Jacob Zuma was right about the Nkandla debacle being an issue for “clever blacks” – and that the poor did not worry much about it. After all, those who cared about Nkandla are the people who had access to the internet, print media and television news splashes. Zuma’s miscalculation was assuming that the only people to win over were the working classes.

Again, there were no widespread street protests but there were protests on the ballots.

The working classes care less about Eskom’s load shedding, SABC scandals or SAA. The ever-increasing cost of electricity, which limits access to hot water, heaters and air conditioners, is the middle classes’ frustration.

The appointment of Hlaudi Motsoeneng as SABC boss, without a matric qualification, was also important for the middle classes – some of them who work for the SABC. Several other scandals have rocked the SABC under Motsoeneng’s watch. As if this was not enough, Motsoeneng has not been shy in his public support for Zuma.

As for the mismanagement of the SAA, the people whose jobs are at stake are the middle classes.

South Africa is no longer characterised by the rich and the poor, black and white. In the end, two constituencies matter: the working classes and the middle classes.

Both matter. Politicians will have to tone down their assumptions of the middle classes and they will have to listen and respond to both publics.

Dr Jason Musyoka is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Human Economy Programme. His research focus is on the middle classes. These are his own views

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Jason Musyoka
Jason Musyoka
Associate Researcher at University of Pretoria. Guest lecturer at UKZN. Former Post-Doctoral Fellow at University of Pretoria. Former Research at Synovate.

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