What a peculiarity that which we call the black middle class in South Africa. These are individuals who have one foot in Sandton and the other in Soweto, spend the Easter holidays and the festive season in rural Eastern Cape and the rest of the year in Gauteng.
They have fewer children, but have even more people to support. They can name a relative, friend or neighbour - or two - who is unemployed. They have a relative who lives in an informal settlement, has been on an Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) waiting list for the past 16 years, rents a backyard shack, depends on public healthcare, dropped out of school or can’t afford a tertiary qualification - the list is endless.
Can you still be considered middle class, even though you tick the right boxes, if your immediate and extended family is poor and depend on your income for shelter, food and living expenses?
Isn’t the middle class as middle class as your family (immediate, distant and far-flung) and community is? Is middle class the status of only an individual, or does that individual’s family and the community also determine their class?
Do we even have a black middle class in South Africa given the socio-economic conditions of black people?
With high unemployment, even the high earners have to split their income between two families, sometimes even more if there are siblings who are at university?
In the US, though the definitions of middle class are varied, they can be summed up into several factors. These are your income bracket, whether you are saving for your child’s university, whether you can afford a holiday at least once a year, whether you own your home, have health insurance, whether you are saving for retirement and where you shop.
The South African black middle class, however, is as hard to define as it is paradoxical. The African Development Bank defines the African middle class as those who spend between R18 to R177 a day.
Before you raise your hand because you spend R10 on a loaf of bread and R30 to commute to work daily, the bank adds that these are people who live in urban centres and reside in bigger houses with modern amenities.
The black middle class is a group of young people who have higher levels of tertiary education, hold salaried jobs, are small business owners, have fewer children, have medical aid or can afford to go to private medical facilities, send their children to private schools, send their children to overseas universities, own a majority of major household goods such as refrigerators and telephones, and have more recreational time.
And this is where it gets tricky - you might own a flat screen TV and a surround sound system, and a double-door fridge, but when was the last time you sent your child to a private school - or to an overseas university? How many people who spend between R18 and R177 a day can afford overseas tuition?
And what black people define as middle class is even more interesting as University of Johannesburg academics Mosa Phadi and Claire Ceruti discovered when conducting their research for the paper “Multiple meaning of the middle class in Soweto, South Africa”, published in the African Sociological Review in 2011.
As part of a broader investigation of class in Soweto, Phadi and Ceruti asked 2559 Soweto residents a number of questions, but started with these two simple questions: “What class are you? and “How do you know?”
The answers to these questions elicited diverse responses as different as the residents of the famous township.
First, the researchers were amazed that 66% of Soweto residents considered themselves middle class. For some it meant “neither rich nor poor”. Others defined their middle-class status based on an ability to mingle with people with money and with those who do not have it. Some said being middle class is a state of mind; how you carried yourself.
The paper is anchored around an anecdote about two of the respondents they surveyed who consider themselves middle class - Hilda, an unemployed informal settlement housewife, and Andronica, a successful businesswoman who lives in posh Diepkloof Extension and drives a Merc.
The researchers arranged a meeting between these women to discuss their “similar social status”. Hilda said she was middle class because “she eats every day, has a generator, owns her shack and her husband’s work has become more regular”. Andronica quips that she can afford anything she wants and she has no debt. “Everything of mine is cash.”
And herein lies the problem. Each black person, depending on their personal circumstances, has a different idea of what middle class is.
And it is sad that one Soweto woman’s definition of middle class is living in shack, depending on a husband who survives on piece jobs, and being able to eat each day, while another woman’s definition is being able to afford whatever she desires and able to pay for it in cash.
We must have a middle class that is a point of reference for everyone. Imagine, if these differences exist in Soweto, what is the definition of middle class in Sandton - worse still, in the plushest part of Plett?