South Africa is slowly becoming a more equitable society in a movement driven by a rapidly growing black middle class and a dramatic decline in racial inequality.
These are some of the finding of a study undertaken by a multidisciplinary team led by the Stellenbosch University (SU)
While coming to add to a flurry of so-called studies tackling this subject, the US study promises a far more critical outlook of this highly flammable subject. In fact the US study can in parts be seen as an attack to a trail of mess largely established by the ‘Black Diamonds approach’ which was launched by the UCT Unilever Institute of Strategic Marketing.
A statement released by the SU said the study shows a rapidly growing black middle class and a dramatic decline in racial inequality, but cautions that opportunities and life chances for children from different communities still remain unequal.
“In terms of fundamentals, our society is slowly becoming more equitable,” said Prof Hennie Kotzé, Research Fellow at the Centre for International and Comparative Politics at SU.
The study found that the income gap between race groups is the lowest it has ever been. “That is not to justify the pace of change, but rather to dispel possible misconceptions fuelled by recent evidence of social fragmentation and racial tensions,” said Kotzé. While there is certainly still room for improvement, data on the incomes and characteristics of South African households suggests that we are making steady progress.”
The statement said the study found that South Africa’s black middle class has grown from 350 000 individuals in 1993 to almost 3 million individuals in 2012. Over this period the black share of the middle class has grown from 11% to 41%. This conclusion was reached using a monthly income per capita threshold of R4 100 in 2012 prices.
Interestingly Kotzé noted that “Previous studies on emergent black affluence often focussed on the implications for the consumer market, but said little about the impact on the social and political landscape. The disassociation of race and class is creating a post-apartheid society that is more dynamic and more equitable.”
Kotzé was part of the research team which included economists, political scientists, anthropologists and sociologists from SU, the University of the Witwatersrand and Pretoria University. Other team members from SU were Prof Servaas van der Berg and Prof Ronelle Burger from the Economics Department, and Dr Cindy Steenekamp and Prof Pierre du Toit from the Political Science Department at SU.
“After almost 20 years of democracy it is no longer true that South Africa’s middle class is mainly white,” said Van der Berg. “Black South Africans now represent the largest share of the middle class.”
“There are indications that the magnitude of this shift and the significance of these developments may previously have been overstated due to media and marketing hype and analysis with small and unrepresentative samples that focus only on the black affluent. However, our work with large representative survey samples affirms that the middle class is becoming more representative,” said Burger.
According to Pierre du Toit, “this is a promising sign, with potential positive political, social and economic repercussions”.
“Most significantly perhaps, growing black affluence can be interpreted as an indication that our society may be becoming fairer with opportunities increasingly distributed according to the ability and motivation of individuals. Our research shows that gradually the constraints of apartheid are being lifted.”
Steenekamp said that “the research cautions against over optimistic predictions of economic growth, political stability or social cohesion” based on this recent surge.
“Marketing hype and a focus on these individuals as consumers have fuelled stereotypes and a characterisation of this group as cohesive and uniform. But our research shows that there is considerable variation within the middle class once you look below the surface.”
“While the rise in the black middle class is expected to help dismantle the association between race and class in South Africa, the analysis suggests that notions of identity may adjust more slowly to these new realities and consequently, racial integration and social cohesion may emerge with a substantial lag.”
The statement said interviews conducted during the study suggest that despite the surge in black affluence, old apartheid era notions of socio-economic class tying class to race have endured and consequently some educated and rich black South Africans are reluctant to identify themselves as middle class.
“Class identity is complex. Our analysis found that the ‘middle class’ label was only weakly correlated with traditional notions of what it means to be middle class,” Steenekamp.
We find some correlation between self-identification as middle class and income, assets and occupation, but not as strong as one would have expected. However, we found no evidence of a distinct set of so-called middle class values.
It is simply not true that the middle class has a better work ethic or places a higher value on savings or education. Research in Latin America confirms this, said Steenkamp. The middle class might think that they are distinct because they value hard work and education, but there appears to be no basis for this and such conceptions could be due to class prejudice”.
Van der Berg said “It is important to highlight that the life chances of South African children remain tragically unequal with opportunities and prospects depending largely on where a child was born and who his or her parents are. Children born in poor communities have limited choices and consequently they are often prevented from reaching their full potential, while the future looks promising for children from upper middle class households with educated parents.”