/ 24 February 2021

Stop squeezing the middle class

Bourgeois burden: A reader writes that there is no such thing as the black middle class because black people do not own the means of production nor have access to inherited wealth.
As we prepare to listen to another tough budget speech, it is time to recognise the vital but neglected role played by this strata in modern South Africa

South Africa’s democratic life is now as old as Nelson Mandela’s time was in prison. His post-1994 motif of the “rainbow nation” has aged with time too, its bright-dream colours fading into divisions of black and white, rich and poor.

One of the rainbow’s stripes which seems to have diminished has nothing to do with colour, however. It is the middle class and it is slowly being erased.

Recently, member of the Democratic Alliance, Mbali Ntuli tweeted: “A lot of people on my TL talk about wanting an alternative choice in our politics. How many are prepared to make it a reality … the middle class shelters itself from the reality with money and hoping somebody else will do the heavy lifting …”

With the 2021 local elections increasingly becoming a “thorn under the feet” of many politicians, many are feeling the pressure to perform, especially after the 2019 polls. It is important, however, that citizens make politicians cognisant of their blind spots, particularly when they publicly express such claims.

Yes, South Africa’s voter turnout has drastically decreased over the years. But one cannot only fault the citizens, many of whom have found themselves having to put in extra hours in underpaying jobs and who arguably get little in return for the tax that they pay. 

Middle class socioeconomic challenges  are not merely a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. If one remembers carefully, the Fees Must Fall Movement was also particularly passionate about addressing issues facing the “missing middle”, where some students cannot afford tuition fees, but are not considered poor enough to receive financial assistance. 

It is about time the government starts investing more in interventions to support the middle class, who contribute vastly to the country.

According to the ANC January 8 statement in 2018, from 1993 to 2018, South Africa’s black middle class had almost tripled from 2.2-million to 6-million. Although the group has grown in numbers, their standard of living, the availability of middle-class jobs as well as their economic influence has weakened over the years.

The South African black middle class, which is usually used as a positive symbol to parade post-apartheid education, economic, entrepreneurship and social progress, is among many countries whose middle class is being swept into poverty and debt for various reasons, including technology, globalisation, rising costs on certain lifestyle goods and services and overall inflation.

Under Pressure: The Squeezed Middle Class by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, is among many publications and research articles which support the notion that some of the indicators and categories used to classify someone as middle class in South Africa, such as income bracket, family size, active credit, home loan balance, vehicle loan balance, among others may not conform to universal standards.

This means that some middle-class people from South Africa would fall into the category of lower class in other parts of the world.

Yes, one can argue about the notions of relativity and context, and that we must measure these sentiments by our own country’s economic standards, but, some of our middle-class people are barely making it.

Six months ago, findings from a study conducted by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) stated that because of the Covid-19 pandemic, 34% of South African households are likely to exit the middle class into critical circumstances of vulnerability and poverty.

This means that aspirations conveyed in Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s 2020 budget speech to lower the inflation rate, reduce the interest rate, and provide income tax relief for hard-working South Africans may have not provided enough buffering from the Covid-19 blows.

The South African middle class is considered to be the engine of the country as it has a strong buying power which contributes to the country’s tax revenue and the influx of new businesses to support this market. 

Many middle-class South Africans, however, have found themselves exposed and vulnerable while witnessing their loved ones struggle to support themselves while also remaining masked and sanitised. Many have found themselves burdened by loans, housing bonds, medical aid bills, insurance bills, car debts, school fees, rates and taxes and water and electricity bills, among many others.

During these tough times, there have been no social grants, RDPs, R350s, NSFAS, free electricity units or food parcels to support them.

The last glorified intervention which was specifically for the middle class was the university gap funding which also magically disappeared after a year. While the rich covered all their costs, and the poor had the government to bail them out, many middle-class citizens found themselves having to go it alone.

Although the president declared many in this class essential workers, we have not heard of the economic and social relief plans for teachers, nurses, police officers, social workers and others fulfilling vital roles, other than the temporary employer/employee relief scheme (UIF Ters). What we have seen, though, are most of these frontliners being sent back to work without PPE or vaccinations.

I think next time instead of asking why the middle class is not mobilising on the streets, managing polling stations or running campaigns, politicians need to think about how they have been carrying this country on their backs while trying to make ends meet.

We need to ask why the government is watching an already strained group of people be further pressurised without any assistance in recognition of their role.

In the 2021 budget speech, instead of being given abstract resilience analogies about the aloe ferox or fynbos, we need more concrete commitments pertaining to income-tax relief, debt support, employment creation and reducing inflation, among many others.

Last year Mboweni closed his speech by saying: “With confidence we lay our case before the whole world, whether we win or die, freedom will rise in Africa, like the sun from the morning clouds.”  The year 2020 saw many middle-class South Africans rise to free the rest of the country from a deadly virus. This year we expect to see our government take up the baton and carry it forward.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.