Accepted paper:

What's missing? Reflections on the Debate on Middle Class(es) in Africa


Roger Southall (University of the Witwatersrand)

Paper short abstract:

The paper will argue that the debate on the middle classes in Africa is myopic notably re the state; middle classes within overall class structures; in the world of work; and in relation to African capitalism - alongside an overall failure to explore the political role of African middle classes

Paper long abstract:

Global institutions argue the middle class in Africa is growing in size, is adopting globalised urban lifestyles. Is also viewed as a driver of both 'development' and 'democracy'. Generally the argument is that the African middle class, along with other (faster-growing) middle classes in the Global South, is becoming more prominent, more visible and more influential with the spread of market capitalism. Africanist scholarship has built upon this narrative, albeit critically - placing heavy emphasis upon such key issues as definition, consumption and the fragility of 'new' middle classes. However, this paper will argue that the contemporary debate on middle classes in Africa has significant blind spots. These relate to the role of the state in making (and in some cases, unmaking) the middle class; the fact that to middle classes need to be appropriately located within class structures as a whole (this implying, too, that there is need to explore the segmentation of the middle class); third, there has been a failure to explore the middle classes in the world of work - as employees of states or national corporations, as professionals and or as white collar workers; fourth, there has been a failure to link the debate on the African middle class to that on African capitalism. Finally, there has been a failure to explore the political role of African middle classes beyond (useful) attitudinal surveys and particular case studies.

panel P124
Rising African Urban Middle Classes: Narrative Mirage or Social Reality?