The African Middle Class?

Friday, 31 May 2019
Nick Westcott

On 23 May, the Royal African Society, with the SOAS Centre for African Studies and London Business School’s Africa Club, held an open workshop on ‘The African Middle Class Re-examined’.

The discussion explored who exactly the ‘African middle class’ are: do they exist at all in any meaningful way, and if so how do they define themselves, where do they live, what do they consume, and how do they behave politically and socially? We brought together insights and research from social anthropologists, geographers, economists and business people, with thought provoking presentations from Dougie Brew of Unilever and Max Bolt (Birmingham University), as well as input from Jason Sumich (Essex), Claire Mercer (LSE) and Geetha Thamaratnam of LGT Impact, and benefitted from some stimulating questions and contributions from several of the 50-plus participants.

Two things were striking: the richness and diversity as well as reality of the concept of an African middle class; and the difficulty of defining it in conventional Western socio-economic terms.

We started by asking, does it exist at all? The answer was certainly ‘yes’, if only because there are many African people who define themselves as middle class, even if different people mean different things by that. In purely economic terms, businesses tend to define it as the people with an income of between $2-10 a day, or alternatively over $4 a day. This would suggest a population of 3-400 million middle class Africans on the continent. But this definition is challenged by the volatility of personal income for many of these people, and the tendency for wage earners to share their income with a wider group - often an extended family - which makes it difficult to identify how much income is truly individual and/or actually disposable. We heard of farm workers on the South Africa-Zimbabwe border who were educated, with professional qualifications, but who firmly considered themselves middle class even if they had fallen on hard times. As a concept it was also very much an urban phenomenon, and associated very much with lifestyle and patterns of consumption, even if some rural people had higher incomes and also aspired to middle class status.

That said, it was also clear the ‘middle class’ priorities for spending were, firstly, education for their children; secondly, health care for their families and themselves; thirdly a place to live; and only fourthly, desirable consumer durables. Social status could be demonstrated by access to education, global brands and ‘modernity’. But values remained very much those of African society as a whole, often revolving around kinship, religion and collective responsibilities, and we did not identify a distinct and separate set of ‘middle class values’ in African countries.

We noted that many who might define themselves as middle class were still highly vulnerable to income shocks: not just from the risk of unemployment, but from deaths in the family which required heavy social spending on funerals. It was therefore a precarious status, as the Zimbabwean-South African farm workers found. Only 20% of African workers were estimated to be in the formal wage-earning economy, and many aspiring middle class Africans were, like others, engaged in 'a variety of income-generating opportunities' (sometimes better known on the street as “the hustle”).

There were also a wide range of constraints on those beginning to rise up the ladder in their freedom to choose how to deploy their income or assets. Efforts to create social stability through a property-owning class of blacks in South Africa collided with the reality that property was often regarded as collectively held by a family rather than by the individual with their name on the title. While there was now a class of home-owners, it was not always clear who owned the home. In Dar es Salaam, building your own home was not only a way to ensure your future accommodation and safety net in retirement but a way to visibly demonstrate your social aspirations (“the social economy of roofs”).

The phenomenon of enclaves, middle classes cutting themselves off from neighbouring poor areas behind high walls, closed gates and guarded compounds, was more complex than it appeared in two ways: it was hard to seal yourself off from friends and relations, who would still demand to stay whether you had gates or not; and the enclave had to be mobile - involving transport to work and the place of work itself - if it was to become a genuine insulation, and this was comparatively hard to achieve.

Finally, the interaction with the African diaspora was considered central for two reasons. Many of the attributes of the middle class, including access to global brands, technology and travel, were closely linked to having friends and relatives abroad. Their influence was a key element in the definition of middle class-ness. Secondly, it was a critical source of income, through remittances, which provided the resources to deliver many of the priorities of the middle class life.

In all this we remained very conscious of the risk of cultural relativity. We noted that in the West the notion of ‘middle class’ itself was also evolving (in the UK, for example, from a situation 20 years ago where ‘everyone is now middle class’, to one where some have been metamorphosed into an affluent ’metropolitan elite’ distinct from a neglected ‘ordinary people’...). Many in Africa might deny that the assumptions underpinning the definition of a middle class applied at all. We concluded that a much more sophisticated understanding of how African communities regarded, and differentiated, themselves was still needed - especially by Africans themselves. But companies would continue to find a market for aspirational goods that made people feel they were differentiated and, somehow, ‘middle class’.

Nick Westcott is the director of RAS