This panel critically examines the relevance of narratives about the rising middle classes in urban Africa through a series of empirical case studies that explore some of the economic, political, social and cultural behaviours, attitudes and believes associated with this emerging social group.
In the past decade or so, the international economic press and development agencies have heralded the rising of an African middle class. A new narrative about the economic rise of Africa and its associated growing middle class is slowly replacing the previous one on poverty, war and famine, which historically has dominated discourses on the continent. From the 1990s onward, the rising African class would have been propelled by economic growth, urbanization, Western-style education, the spread of democracy and the rule of law. As an urban phenomenon, it is often regarded as a potential venue for further « economic advancement » and « contemporary modernization ». As a distinct social group, members of the rising middle class are associated with new consumption patterns such as the frequent attendance of restaurants, supermarkets, gyms, the use of imported consumer goods such as household appliances, Internet, cell phones, cosmetics and the uptake of urban services such as banking, insurances, kindergartens and private schools. They are also believed to have widely adopted western values and attitudes on democracy, education, individual rights, as well as gender and family relationships. In this panel, we propose to critically assess the relevance of this narrative about the rising middle class in urban Africa through a series of empirical case studies that explore some of the economic, political, social and cultural behaviours, attitudes and believes associated with this supposedly emerging social group. The panel also proposes to question the assumed strictly urban character of rising African middle classes.