South Africa’s middle class is three salaries away from poverty

(Oupa Nkosi)

(Oupa Nkosi)


A simple Google search of the term “middle class” reveals optimistic proposals, which suggest that this class might offer the promise of development. By and large, this class is seen as business-minded and therefore hardworking, able to innovate and able to create wealth.

One of the areas highly attributed to the middle class is its ability to consume. It is therefore argued that the middle classes are conspicuous consumers, whether they are in China, India or South Africa.

Lately therefore, marketing ­agencies see the middle class as a lucrative market segment.

In Africa, the public is treated with a romanticised image of the middle classes, whether in relation to the state or the markets — that is, their political and economic behaviours respectively.

On May 21, a report by the Unilever Institute of Strategic Marketing, based at the University of Cape Town, released a report that estimated sub-Saharan Africa’s middle classes at 100-million, excluding South Africa’s.

This number is conservative, if we compare it with the estimates provided by the African Development Bank (AfDB) in 2011 (134-million). The AfDB and the Unilever reports focus on the importance of the African middle class in consumption, which in turn promotes production.

Definitions of who the middle class is remain unclear. The most recent Unilever report defines the middle classes as those who earn between $4 and $70 a day, whereas the AfDB report defines it as those earning between $2 and $20.

The underlying assumption is that the middle class is able to buy items beyond basic food items. But even this assumption becomes unrealistic, if we consider what $2 can buy.

In the Unilever study, the African middle classes include poor Kenyans who live in Kibera, Nairobi, which is Africa’s largest slum and among the five largest slums on Earth.

In Nairobi, $2 a day cannot buy bread, milk and public transport to and from the city centre where some of the Kibera residents conduct street trading.

Also, in terms of lifestyle, individuals who earn $2 a day are far apart from those who earn $70. An individual who earns $70 in Nairobi is a senior executive and is able to afford a mortgage and a reasonably priced second-hand SUV. These disparities suggest that we should either change the definition of the middle class or change the misguided obsession with consumption. 

In South Africa, Professor Roger Southall suggests these consumption stereotypes are incomplete, and goes on to note that social and political behaviour is important in trying to understand the middle class. Because the middle class in Africa is still linked to the working class through kinship ties, they often experience scarcity and financial debt as they try to look after their dependants.

This is confirmed by the latest (2017) retirement-funding survey by Sanlam, which found that about three-quarters of the middle class in South Africa are under financial stress. Most of the black middle class in South Africa are roughly three salaries away from poverty. This is the length of time the banks allow for catch-up on unpaid mortgages, after which a foreclosure is initiated.

In South Africa more than 20 000 houses every year are either auctioned or served with sale in execution notices. On a per-capita basis, the repossession rate is four times higher than the world average and 20 times more than countries such as Denmark and Singapore.

This harsh reality points to the precarious nature of South Africa’s middle class, most of whom are black.

Politicians and marketing agents who ride on the middle-class wave could take some lessons from history. Before the Industrial Revolution in Britain, the social classes at the time were the peasants and the nobility.

The Industrial Revolution created two more social classes, the working class and the middle class. The middle class consisted of shop owners, factory owners, lawyers and doctors. As the Industrial Revolution spread to the rest of Europe and the United States, so did an urban middle class.

Although the industrial revolution created a new middle class, which started to break ranks with the working class, academic Margaret Hunt concludes that this class was far more vulnerable than it was thought, and that its financial struggles created many conflicts in the household as individuals made difficult social and economic choices.

Any proper assessment of Africa’s middle class should consider the vulnerability of this class rather than hold a romanticised view. I suggest that Africa’s middle class is highly vulnerable and, as Southall argues, stereotypes that focus on consumption show only half the picture of this class. It might well be that the elites, who include marketing agents and politicians, know very little about the realities and the true character of the African middle class.

Dr Jason Musyoka is a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Advancement of Scholarship, Universityof Pretoria

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