These days the African middle class is widely discussed as a phenomenon considered indicative of social change.
But a great deal of the debate hasn’t been very well informed. For a long time contributions lacked a rigorous analysis, failing to examine the so-called middle class in terms of its potential as a proper class. People involved in the debate hardly bothered to engage with the more methodological aspects of the analysis of classes, which has a long tradition in social sciences and should be an integral part of any analysis.
Most problematic was the fiddling with figures, which classified people according to a minimum income as middle class. This is clearly not a very sensible way to approach proper class definition. It puts almost exclusive emphasis on financial and monetary aspects. But professional and social status, cultural norms and lifestyle related attributes as well as political orientation(s) and influence were often ignored. Where they were considered, it was often only in passing.
The debate largely ignored earlier analyses on African elites. It promoted the assumption that the middle class(es) are a positive ingredient for the development of and in African societies.
But such optimism is unhelpful both in terms of the potential economic role of these loosely defined middle classes, as well as the expectations about their political relevance.
In the meantime that’s started to change. Scholars from various disciplines related to African Studies are gaining the upper hand and claiming ownership. New publications testify to increasingly concerted efforts to respond with different and more nuanced perspectives.
These engagements offer insights based on more than lofty generalisations void of any social realities on the ground. Rather, the case studies test some of the assumptions and are able to portrait existing identities and practices of social segments of societies, which might be considered as middle class - or not.
So then, what class is the middle class?
What is lumped together as middle classes represent at best an opaque awareness – if not about themselves (in the plural) – then at least about society and their position, aims and aspirations. Such ambiguity explains the different political and social orientations of members of a middle class, their different roles and positions in social struggles and their difference in interests.
The conclusions seem to suggest that there is no social force in the making, which by status and definition would indeed be the torch bearer for more democracy, participation, human rights, social equality and redistribution of wealth beyond benefiting just the group. One might call this a class interest, shared by many members of these middle classes across the continent.
But depending on the circumstances, ethnicity, pigmentation and other criteria (not least religion) matter at least as much as (at best) diffuse class awareness.
This should not stand in the way of continued interest in this species called middle class, which at a closer look is not as new as some contributions to the wider debate suggest. After all, there were always some middle layers of societies with a set of differing interests and orientations – only that their visibility and size in African countries seems to have increased lately.
But we should be much more cautious about providing simplified and sweeping explanations about the scope for potential social and political reforms and the impact on transformation of societies these middle classes are able – or willing – to promote.
After all, it is neither the middle class(es) nor even the upper fifth of the income pyramid that has any influence on the distribution of wealth in societies. They too are at the receiving end.
It is indeed the top decimal if not the top 5% or an even smaller fraction that drives inequality, and it is these haves that have grasped the steering wheel. Their forms of appropriation and enrichment are the ultimate determinants of the scope and limit of poverty reduction by means of redistributive measures in favour of those in the bottom half of society.
To understand inequalities and the mechanisms of their reproduction, the motto coined by University of Cambridge economist Gabriel Palma is appropriate. He points to the decisive impact of the wealthy segment of societies as regards growing inequalities on a global scale and concludes:
It’s the share of the rich, stupid.
One is tempted to suspect that the middle class(es) hype seeks to propose a historical mission of these social layers in terms of future perspectives. But, in the light of the real (also material and political) power relations and structures of societies and the global economy, they are never able to live up to this mission.
Despite this sobering conclusion, the current engagement with the phenomenon called the African middle class(es) is anything but obsolete. Independent of their size, they signify modified social relations in African societies, which indeed deserve attention and rigorous analysis – with the emphasis on the latter.
These edited extracts are from the Introduction and Conclusion of Henning Melber (ed.), The Rise of Africa’s Middle Class: Myths, Realities and Critical Engagements.
The middle classes in the Global South gained growing attention since the turn of the century, mainly through their rapid ascendancy in the Asian emerging economies. A side effect of the economic growth during these ‘fat years’ was a relative increase of monetary income for a growing number of households.
This also benefited some lower income groups in resource-rich African economies. Many among these crossed the defined poverty levels, which were raised in late 2015 from US$ 1.25 a person a day to US$ 1.90. As some economists had suggested, from as little as US$2 they were considered as entering the “middle class”.
The ominous term was rising like a phoenix from the ashes to characterise this trend. It added another label to the packaging of a neo-liberal discourse. By emphasising the free market paradigm as creating the best opportunities for all, it suggests that everyone benefits from a laissez-faire economy.
But the middle class concept remained vague and limited to number crunching. The minimum threshold for entering a so-called middle class in monetary terms was critically vulnerable to a setback into impoverishment. After all, one sixth of the world’s population has to make a fragile living on US$ 2 to 3 a day.
The African Development Bank played a defining role in promoting the debate. Using the US$2 benchmark, it declared some 300 million Africans (about a third of the continent’s population) as being middle class in 2011. A year later it expanded its guesstimates to 300 million to 500 million. It also set them up as being very important.
Such monetary acrobatics aside, the analytical deficit which characterises such classification is seriously problematic. The so-called middle class appears to be a “muddling class”. Rigorously explored differentiation remained largely absent – not to mention any substantial class analysis. Professional activities, social status, cultural, ethnic or religious affinities or lifestyle as well as political orientations were hardly (if at all) considered.
But lived experiences matter if one is in search of how to define a middle class as an array of collective identities. Such necessary debate has in the meantime arrived in African studies. And the claim to ownership is also reflected in a just published volume that documents the need to deconstruct the mystification of the middle class being declared as the torchbearers of progress and development.
Politics, economic growth and the middle class
As alerted in a paper by UNU-WIDER, a new middle class as a meaningful social actor does require a collective identity in pursuance of common interests. Once upon a time this was called class-consciousness, based on a “class in itself” while acting as a “class for itself”. After all, which “middle” is occupied by an African “middle class”, if this is not positioned also in terms of class awareness and behaviour?
Politically such middle classes seem not as democratic as many of those singing their praises assume. Middle classes have shown ambiguities - ranging from politically progressive engagement to a status-quo oriented, conservative approach to policies (if being political at all). African realities are not different.
In South Africa, the only consistency of the black middle class in historical perspective is its political inconsistency, as political scientist Roger Southall has suggested. They are no more likely to hold democratic values than other black South Africans. In fact, they are more likely to want government to secure higher order needs such as proper service delivery, infrastructure and rule of law according to their living circumstances rather than basic, survival needs.
It remains dubious that middle classes in Africa by their sheer existence promote economic growth. Their increase was mainly a limited result of the trickle down effects of the resource based economic growth rates during the first decade of the 21st century since then in decline. This had hardly economic potential stimulating productive investment that contributes towards sustainable economic growth.
There’s also little evidence of any correlation between economic growth and social progress, as a working paper of the IMF concludes. While during the “fat years” the poor partly became a little less poor, the rich got much richer. Even the African Development Bank admits that the income discrepancies as measured by the Gini-coefficient have increased, while six among the ten most unequal countries in the world are in Africa.
Nancy Birdsall, president emeritus of the Centre for Global Development, is among the most prominent advocates and protagonists of the middle class. She argues in support of a middle class rather than a pro-poor developmental orientation. But even she concedes that a sensible political economy analysis needs to differentiate between the rich with political leverage and the rest.
She remains nevertheless adamant that the middle class is an ingredient for good governance. This is based on her assumption that continued economic growth reduces inequalities. She further hypothesises that a growing middle class has a greater interest in an accountable government and supports a social contract, which taxes it as an investment into collective public goods to the benefit of also the poor. Dream on!
Time to lift the ideological haze
It remains necessary to put the record straight and lift the ideological haze. Already the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development 2013 report, which also promoted the middle class hype, predicted that 80% of middle classes would come from the global South by 2030, but only 2% from Sub-Saharan Africa.
Recent assessments claim that it’s not the middle of African societies which expands, but the lower and higher social groups. According to a report by the Pew Research Centre only a few African countries had a meaningful increase of those in the middle-income category.
And the Economist, which earlier shifted its doomsday visions of a “Hopeless Continent” towards “Africa Rising” and the “Continent of Hope”, now concludes that Africans are mainly rich or poor but not middle class. Fortunately, the debate has created sufficient awareness among scholars to explore the fact and fiction of the assumed transformative power of a middle class. This also includes the need to be sensitive towards ideological smokescreens which try to make us believe that a middle class is the cure. In reality, little has changed when it comes to leverage and control over social and political affairs.
The current engagement with the African middle class phenomenon is nevertheless anything but obsolete. Independent of their numbers, middle class members signify modified social relations. These deserve attention and analysis with the emphasis on social relations.
Cambridge Economist Göran Therborn stresses that discourse on class is always of social relevance. The boom of the middle class debate is therefore a remarkable symptom of our decade. Social class will remain a category of central importance, and bringing the class back in can do no harm.
Visitors to “the land of wide open spaces”, as Namibia is successfully promoted to tourists, will be impressed by what they see. Besides the beauty of the nature and abundant wildlife, the urban face of inner cities appeals to foreigners who treasure security and comfort amid the wilderness.
Namibia contributes a positive image to Africa. It ranks among the continent’s top five in governance and other performance related surveys. But beyond the surface of the success story looms a different reality for most of the country’s 2.3 million people, as it marks 27 years of independence.
Independence was finally achieved on March 21, 1990 after a long and violent anti-colonial struggle. Since then, Namibia has shown remarkable signs of political stability. The former liberation movement Swapo governs with an ever-increasing majority.
It secured 80% of votes in the last parliamentary elections. The directly elected party candidate for head of state, Hage Geingob, scored almost 87%. Still representing the first generation of the liberation struggle, he personifies the smooth succession of three post-independence state presidents with far reaching executive powers.
Catchwords attributed to them by party propaganda include reconciliation (Sam Nujoma, 1990-2005), consolidation (Hifikepunye Pohamba, 2005-2015) and prosperity (Hage Geingob, since 2015. Geingob is the party’s vice-president and became acting president in April 2015.
But under his presidency the promised prosperity has remained the privilege of few. Namibia is a rich country with poor people. Redistribution of wealth is mainly limited to beneficiaries within a new black elite. These are office bearers, party stalwarts and those with close ties to the new inner circles of governance. They thrive through a policy of so-called affirmative action and black economic empowerment.
Namibia’s state-driven economy
Namibia’s state-driven economy is a paradise for parasitic and rent-seeking self-enrichment schemes. The creation of state-owned enterprises as troughs for embezzlement has flourished. State tenders have dished out large sums for projects bordering on megalomaniac elite symbolism, often without creating any meaningful productive assets. Nepotism is a striking feature of a society with one of the highest income discrepancies in the world.
The UNDP’s Human Development Report documents the gross inequalities. A commonly referred to statistical figure is the country’s Gross National Income distribution per capita. This categorises Namibia as a higher middle-income country. But this number is misleading.
The inequality adjusted Human Development Index shows that Namibia has one of the highest inequalities in the world as measured by a Gini coefficient 0.613.
Also, 23.5% of the population was classified as living below the income poverty line using 2013 data.
Namibia’s government claims to have achieved considerable poverty alleviation. This contrasts sharply with the data. If tourists would end up in some of the overpopulated shack settlements at the outskirts of Namibian towns, they would see a different world from the lodges and Windhoek’s inner city.
Namibia’s government is not shy of self-appraisals. It’s fond of blueprints, strategies and programmes, all claiming to solve the country’s problems. Under President Geingob, a new Ministry of Poverty Eradication and Social Welfare had been established. But so far little has been achieved.
The country’s fourth National Development Plan has been complemented by a Harambee Prosperity Plan. It’s based on an annual economic growth rate of at least 7%. Given the (un)predictable insecurities such as global economic shocks, the effects of climate change, and the devastating consequences of the recent drought, this borders on wishful thinking similarly set out in Vision 2030. This claims that by then “Namibia will be a prosperous and industrialised nation”.
In reality, Namibia’s economy has been in recession since mid-2016.
The discrepancy between promises and realities suggests that President Geingob’s rhetoric borders on populism. The ritual of declaring the annual state budget as “pro-poor” has long lost any convincing effect.
Expenditure for army, police and security related portfolios have over the years proportionally increased more than other expenditure. So have debt services for local and foreign loans.
The hope for an economic recovery in the near future is pinned on a booming tourism sector and the full production of one of the biggest uranium mines in the world owned by a Chinese company. Such silver linings look rather bleak and faint. Sustainability would require other ingredients, not least a meaningful increase of employment.
But as of mid-2016, the state’s finances have faced a precarious shortage. The annual budget for 2017/2018 reflects the need to restore fiscal prudence and austerity to regain liquidity and some degree of credibility. Local trust and confidence in the state’s ability to deliver is at an all-time low.
A contentious issue is the bloated civil service. More than 20 years ago a wage and salary commission urged then Prime Minister Hage Geingob to stop recruitment in the public sector. But the expansion continued unabated.
The political elite continues to preach water and drink wine: a year ago President Geingob signed a 6% salary increase with immediate effect for all political office holders. His cabinet is by far the biggest since independence.
Grown up, but not mature
Despite shifting grounds, the party still mobilises along the heroic narrative of the liberation struggle, much to the frustration of a younger generation. But the number of born frees with voting rights will soon exceed the older generations. Inner-party rivalries and tensions, as well as ethnicity as a potential source of conflict are on the rise. An unresolved land issue, also manifested in urban and ancestral land claims, is adding fuel to the flames.
Dissenting voices, mainly articulated by vocal younger activists provoke government to consider plans to censor the social media. A whistleblower bill before parliament includes provisions to heavily punish “lies” and to prohibit any criticism of state institutions. It restricts public opinion, including intimidation of the remarkably free and critical independent print media.
The authoritarian if not totalitarian tendency is also documented in Swapo’s current initiatives to take disciplinary action against members who dare to criticise party politics. But this will not silence the growing frustration over the limits to liberation.
Nor does the close collaboration with North Korea add any positive image. A planned visit by the pariah state’s foreign minister was cancelled at the last minute after news about it leaked in the media.
A generation into independence, the country and its governance might be considered as grown up, but certainly not (yet) mature.