Africa / African / Class

Dominant Story of Rising African Middle Class is Dangerous for Well-being

Thursday June 29, 2013. First day of the European Congress on African Studies, ISCTE – University Institute of Lisbon, Portugal.

I am listening to a panel of speakers talking about the African middle class. Why this panel? Because I think they are talking about me and my mother and the guy who stands at the traffic section begging for change. 

ISCTE - University Institute of Lisbon, Portugal (c) Kopano Ratele

ISCTE – University Institute of Lisbon, Portugal (c) Kopano Ratele

(Aside: why am I, and quite a number of other Africans, part of a conference of Europeans who study Africa as though it’s a country? I can’t think of that now, I am busy being spoken of and need to pay attention.)

The panel, the very first one I go to, is titled “Middle classes in Africa: the making of a social category and its social meaning and uses”. The panel will go on for the whole day, three sessions in all. Unspoken message from the organisers and the conveners: this topic is important.

It is. But not for the reasons suggested to us.

The question is: to what ends are we being asked to give our attention to this issue of the middle class in Africa? Critical too is who is being addressed?

Dominique Darbon, a white European researcher, is talking. He reflects on the new keenness of multinational corporations and other influential organisations and voices to let the world – and Africa – know of the rise of the African middle class. Note: the middle class includes people earning between 2$ and 60$ a day. What?

Yes, that’s correct. If you earn between 2$ and 60$ a day you are part of the middle class.

The speaker asks why? I too am interested in the same question: why are these people talking about African and whether it has a growing or not? And while thinking of that, think of that range also.

Think of people earning 2$ a day. Are they middle class really? What sort of life does an income of 2$ a day entail?

Now think of people earning 60$ a day. Are they really in the same class as those with an income 2$/day?   

The speaker’s answer to the question is one I share actually. Saying all these people are middle class is good. Or rather, it sounds good. That’s all it is.

The ruling classes, multinational corporations, and multilateral organisation believe it is good for the poor to hear themselves called by a new name: middle class. The reasoning seems to be that being called middle class, compared to the old and honest terms – poor or working class – produces an attitudinal shift in society and individual citizens. And it does. That is the danger. So be warned.

The real reason for giving the working class and poor a new name is to depoliticise them. If they can start thinking of themselves as part of this class which is supposedly enterprising  they might find it unnecessary to see the exploitation they suffer at the hands of the upper classes. And, above all, if they can be made to see themselves as important consumers in the global mall of capitalist societies, well, we can sell hair, more HD tvs, small cars, shoes, perfumes and plastic toys to them. 

If Africans can be encouraged to view themselves as at the heart of economic change as they are meant to be, they will be less likely to see the antagonistic relations that govern societies.

They will start believing it is not the corporations, government or employers who are responsible for their misery, but themselves.

They will turn against each other. They will realise they are not working hard enough.

They will admit they are lazy, or not bright enough, or economic conditions are too difficult to create decent employment or to be paid a fair salary for their work.

They will see that they complain too much. All they have to do is support the government’s policies and buy new cheaper tv sets.

I have written about this before, the need to be wary of this rising story of the rising middle class. I have previously referred to a report by the African Development Bank (AfDB) which glowingly reports the number of middle class Africans has tripled over the last 30 years to 326 million. The AfDB states that the growth of the middle class is good news for the future prosperity of Africa.

Calling the poor, working class, and precariat part of the middle class is mostly good for bankers and the rich they serve and are part of. Mostly good for manufacturers of ever new products. Good for the neoliberal market driven ideology which needs a new consensus. For such actors as the African Development Bank, The Economist, and World Bank.

The truth is that slapping new names like the middle class on the guy and woman earning 20 rand per day is far from good for anyone who is poor. Actually, it is bogus. And dangerous for your well-being too. 

Forget the middle class already. Go sane. Fight the lies. Fight for jobs. Fight for a decent life. Join the struggle.

Fight against unproductive financial instruments making the rich richer, and all of the poor who need to earn a living without employment. For quality education. For good efficient public transport system. For free health and social welfare services. For your tax, even if it’s 14 cents only, to fund technical schools, art classes, creativity education.

The reframing of the poor in Africa or wherever they are in the world is a reactionary story. Its main aim is to construct new markets for multinationals. It supports capitalist globalization. Many of the people now referred to as middle class live precarious lives.

Only by a stretch of imagination can they be thought to live a decent, secure and happy life. That’s what Africa’s hardworking men and women need – quality jobs, a secure existence, and well-being from a life without fear – not newfangled names.

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