Black and Middle Class in South Africa

Monday, 10 February, 2014 - 15:00

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Note from Roger Southall:  Jacana invited me to write a book on the black middle class and rather rashly I agreed.  I spent the first few months of last year reading around and putting together some introductory draft chapters, of which the present seminar paper is one.  Since then, while I have continued to work on the black middle class, I have often been diverted - but nonetheless the project continues although at a far slower pace than either Jacana or I would like. But all this means that I am increasingly conscious of the limitations of the present paper - there are various sources I  know I have not taken account of, and there are doubtless all sorts of aspects of the early development of the black middle class that I have overlooked. So the presentation of the paper is very much a plea (not just for mercy!) but for help

Alan Cobley has pointed out that no sustained interest was taken in the subject of class in South Africa until the arrival of a generation of radical historians in the 1970s, and then the focus of concern was largely with the origins and development of an African working class in whose revolutionary potential the future was, by many, deemed to lie.1 In contrast, while the social character of a black middle class which had always remained small was not ignored (for indeed it attracted some interest from liberal historians in the 1960s), it continued to be dealt with spasmodically, and then very often only as a subordinated appendage of the black proletariat. Arguably, it is only now that the history of the black middle class, notably as it participated in and shaped the African National Congress (ANC), is beginning to receive its due. In part, this is because – in contrast to the working class – the lot of the middle class is often deemed in the dominant narrative of ‘struggle history’ to have been unheroic, and indeed in some tellings, such as that of Amilcar Cabral, the only way for the bourgeoisie to contribute to liberation was by abandoning all the trappings of class advantage and actually joining the working class! Yet even while, today, there is a growing interest in the multi-faceted nature of the struggle against apartheid, there has been a remarkable lack of interest in tracing the holistic evolution of the black middle class after that. To be sure, as we will see, while growth of the black middle class since 1994 has consistently excited the interests of the marketing industry, and while this has been matched by a reasonably concerted focus since around 2000 upon Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) as a vehicle for class formation (and much else!), there has been relatively little else beyond sporadic acknowledgements of the importance and dynamic of what is going to be argued in this book is a very significant process of class formation.   

In the pages that follow, I intend to trace the broad outlines of how the black middle class has been treated by historians and social scientists as a preface to examining its present character. In so doing, I will not only accumulate many debts to writers who have gone before me, but also seek to relate themes and issues to the development in class theory as outlined in the previous chapter. Meanwhile, a further preoccupation will be to indicate in passing how past and present literature relates to characterization of African elites and bourgeoisie across the wider continent more generally.

1 Alan Cobley, Class and Consciousness: The Black Petty Bourgeoisie in South Africa, 1924 to 1950,Greenwood Press, Westport, CT. 1990, p.3.


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