[intro]In his new book “The New Black Middle Class in South Africa”, Roger Southall grapples with the definitional problem of identifying who exactly the middle class is and what it means to be black, middle class and professional. Hlonipha Mokoena reviews Southhall’s latest work and discusses elites, affluence, and whether black diamonds are in fact a product of the 1994 political transition.[/intro]

The porcelain dogs sit atop the room divider peering upwards into nothingness while the porcelain tiger looks on in a poker-faced expression. Other trinkets and tchotchke fill the spaces of the glass-door divider and through one window pane there is a stainless steel milk jug that reminds one of the visitors that middle-class mothers and grannies are always planning for.

The ‘bunny ears’ aerial perched on the sofa armrest links to the television set that hides behind the nonchalant teenager whose tilted head, shoulder-length braids and Union Jack emblazoned t-shirt volubly announces her global citizenship. Her mother, standing next to her, wears a frilly gingham apron and doek; comfortably inhabiting the world of African womanhood. Thus, Jodi Bieber’s cover photograph captures the varied and disjointed ways in which black people – especially black women – become middle class.

BooksTJBlackMiddleClass Book Cover

There is the old-world values of tea sets and dinner sets that are set aside for the guests who never really arrive and there is then the world of respectability where a home has to contain the markers of homeliness and good housekeeping – the gleaming tiles, polished ornaments and well-worn apron.

Roger Southhall’s book The New Black Middle Class in South Africa (2016) opens up this world of the black middle class by ranging in its scope from the definitional problem of identifying exactly who is middle class, to the existential issues of what it means to be black, middle class and a professional. In the nine chapters of the book, Southall marshals study after study, statistic after statistic in an attempt to give reality to what the media and popular culture have chosen to label as the “black diamonds”.

Southall eschews this sensationalist view (even while constantly returning to the sushi parties of Kenny Kunene) and opts instead for a piecemeal and meticulous quantification of what constitutes this middle class. As he repeatedly acknowledges, Southall owes some of his interest in the black middle class to the classic text written by Leo Kuper titled An African Bourgeoisie: Race, Class and Politics in South Africa which was published in 1965. This historical purview on the African middle class is also accompanied by a chapter, which looks at the pre-democracy character of the middle class, namely the years 1910 to 1994. This validates an argument that Southall is at pains to make, namely that the black middle class is not a product of the political transition of the 1990s, nor merely a parasitic elite that owes its existence to the preferential treatment given to it by the ruling African National Congress (ANC). There are other myths that are deflated, the main one being that affirmative action has taken jobs away from “white people”. As you read repeatedly, the “deracialisation” of the corporate world and other private sectors in South Africa has been incredibly slow and the integration of black Africans has had mixed results to say the least.

In its dedication to base its arguments on facts and statistics, Southall’s data and empirical foundations cannot be faulted. This empirical strength does not, however, militate against the emergence of contradictions, many of which the book confronts. These are not contradictions in the writing of the book but they emanate from the category “black middle class” itself. For example Southall notes:

“‘Obvious affluence’, or ‘conspicuous consumption’, is one of the behaviour traits most commonly ascribed to the black middle class. It is an image which has been much strengthened by the black elite’s penchant for expensive cars and large mansions along with indulgence in the lavish parties and fashionable weddings that are regularly splashed over the weekend press.” (171)

Even while making this assertion, Southall counters this image with the observation that “scholars’ attention to black middle-class expenditure patterns, and what these signify, reveals a far more complicated picture.” Thus, simply put, the headline-grabbing image of the “black diamonds” sits uncomfortably between two other equally compelling pictures, namely that of the middle class as frugal and that of the middle class as indebted. The reality of these alternative narratives is itself a product of the kinds of studies that have been conducted about the black middle class.

Either the interest is in quantifying what constitutes middle classness or in understanding the consumptive potential of those who identify themselves as middling. Although slightly crude, these opposites mean that by the end of the book, the general feeling of the reader is dismay rather than exhilaration.

The black middle class should be a success story, but somehow it doesn’t seem to be an unqualified success. This leads to one main question – why has this process of class formation yielded such mixed results? Although there are many possible explanations – the insufficiency of Black Economic Empowerment as a redistributive strategy; the enduring power of apartheid policy and segregation; the ambiguity of class as a category; the potential plurality of black middle classes and the inadequacy of the terminology itself – I would suggest another reason for a muted celebration of black middle classness.

In our political and academic discourses on elites and affluence, we have neglected to discuss a fundamental question that is at the heart of the problem of inequality and how to rectify it. That question is, “how much does it cost to radically change a person’s life?” Whether in the sphere of primary or higher education, the private sector or the public sector, what Southall’s book reveals is that no matter how progressive the policies, there is simply a gap that refuses to close.

I would argue that that gap exists because elites (or the 1%) do not, and will not, stop spending on “self-improvement” and other “life enhancements”. From life coaches to Mandarin language lessons, elites spend a disproportionate amount of money “getting ahead”, especially vicariously through their children. What this means is that the state simply cannot compete with the variety of consumption and habits that constitute a “meaningful life”. Thus, while government policies may give upwardly mobile black people “access” to the traditional stepping stones to the middle or upper classes, the “market” constantly invents new ways to distinguish the haves from the have nots.

What Southall’s book shows is that the “black middle class” is a kind of wind vane that shows us which direction the political and social winds are blowing. Perhaps as in the 1970s, the sudden visibility of the black middle class is a harbinger of a political order that is at risk of imploding. In the same way that the apartheid state had hoped to co-opt the middle class (re-enacting the ways that missionaries of a previous century had tried to co-opt the kholwa – the African Christian converts), the current body politic is scrambling to recruit the black middle class to its political project whether it be nation-building or decolonisation (remember the very short time that Kenny Kunene spent as a member of the EFF).

Projected into the future, this implies that unless the black middle classes find a way to define their own status, political position and social utility, they run the risk of always being either someone’s pet project or lap dog.