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

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.”

So has the elevation of black people into a space once occupied primarily by white South Africans helped to break down the racial barriers that were the hallmark of this society for decades?

Lesego Kotane (30), a Johannesburg-based brand strategist, said South African society had historically been plagued by divisions that go beyond race. Aside from black versus white, there is the urban-rural divide, and township dwellers set against those in the suburbs.

“These divisions have always been a part of our mindset as South Africans – we are wired that way but the black middle class is helping to break these barriers down. We come from these sections of society and live in each other’s worlds, which helps to bridge the gaps that cause these divisions,” he said.

So the playing field in South Africa has been levelled by the ability to earn the same standard of living as one’s white neighbour? Unfortunately not, believes Kotane, who sees white South Africans holding the advantage economically.

“In theory I am afforded the same opportunities as my white peers but I don’t necessarily agree with the notion we are now equal. The issue is much more multilayered. Our realities are much different and the black middle classes still have an awful lot of catching up to do to match their white counterparts,” he said.

“A lot of white South Africans have a history of wealth and privilege behind them that goes back decades. That’s not my reality. I might earn a good living now but I come from a relatively modest background.

“In addition, I am responsible for so many others financially that we don’t compare when it comes to accumulated wealth.”

Racial tensions
Kotane said that in some stances the evolution of the black middle class has added to racial tensions, because the segregation apartheid imposed is no longer there.

“The freedom we achieved allows us to see exactly how far apart we really are because we can live side by side. The more some see the discrepancies between white historical privilege and the general black existence, the more a sense of disillusionment sets in,” he said.

Biggs has a different take on South Africa’s race relations within the middle classes. “Racist attitudes are still in play among South Africans over 40 years of age, as they experienced apartheid and are still affected by it,” he said.

“But amongst my generation and those coming up behind you find that most people take each other for who they are. There don’t have the superiority complex the older generation has.”