Black middle class drives South Africa’s economic growth as new tensions arise
The black middle class has expanded rapidly but attitudes remain ingrained
People of different races sit outside a popular coffee shop in Johannesburg. Photograph: Melanie Stetson Freeman/Getty Images
South Africa’s black middle classes have surpassed their white counterparts in number over the past eight years and are now seen as the driving force behind the country’s economic growth.
While the African National Congress-led government still has major challenges to overcome when it comes to improving the lives of the country’s poor majority, millions of black South Africans have advanced into the middle-class category since apartheid ended in 1994.
Although it is difficult to quantify their exact number, the Unilever Institute – a nonprofit organisation based at the University of Cape Town – recently estimated the black middle class had grown from just under 1.7 million in 2004 to 4.2 million in 2012.
Of the 8.3 million adults it classified as middle class last year, 51 per cent were black, compared with 34 per cent white, 9 per cent “coloured” and 6 per cent Indian. In 2004, the proportions for the two main groups were much different, with 52 per cent white and 32 per cent black.
The report, Four Million and Rising, said the black middle class was growing rapidly and collectively had 400 billion rand (€27.5 billion) to spend annually in an economy increasingly reliant on consumer spending for growth.
How research organisations define what qualifies a person to be a member of the African middle class varies dramatically from study to study, as well as in relation to the determinates used to measure an individual’s status.
But in the South African context, Unilever has said someone can be considered middle class if they meet three of the following four requirements: they own a car, have a third-level qualification, earn between €1,000 and €3,600 a month, or have their own business.
‘A good standard of living’
So what kind of lifestyles do these new middle-class people aspire to? Clint Biggs (32), a project manager with a construction company in Cape Town, told The Irish Times he grew up in coloured working-class communities in the Western Cape but now felt he was firmly ensconced in the middle class.
“When we were young my parents were always able to put enough food on the table. Luxury items, though, were hard to come by. I always wanted to have the popular branded clothes but we could never afford them.
“Now I buy the clothes I want and I enjoy a good standard of living. I stay in a nice apartment with my fiancée and my neighbours are all different races – black, white, Indian and coloured. It’s a nice area but there is a lot of security because we are in the heart of the city.”