The middle class without funds

Henning Melber (ed.): The Rise of Africa's Middle Class. Myths, Realities and Critical Engagements Zed Books. UK

The Rise of Africa's Middle Class Myths, Realities and Critical Engagements
Forfatter: Henning Melber (red.)
Forlag: Zed Books (UK)
This is a very solid academic work where all the writers are critical – in part very critical – to this understanding of the middle class in Africa


Myths, Realities and Critical Engagements the subtitle of this book is edited by the Swedish sociologist, political scientist and African scientist Henning Melber. And that's what this book is about. All of the book's ten chapters are critical to the mantra of the last decade that Africa's middle class is growing rapidly and vigorously. This myth started with the fact that the African development bank in 2011 defined the middle class in Africa to include everyone who spent between two and ten dollars a day, which resulted in 300 millions of Africans, almost a third of the continent's inhabitants, belonging to the middle class. It was then already a fact that African economies grew sharply in the 2000 century; when the middle class also increased, it implicitly showed that wealth benefited more.

Unevenly distributed. The Rise of Africa's Middle Class is a very solid academic work where all the writers are critical – in part very critical – to this understanding of the middle class in Africa. Few of the authors agree that a middle-class definition based solely on income is appropriate. Of those who emphasize the most economic definitions (Carola Lentz, Tim Stoffel and Oluyele Akinkugbe), no one accepts that one can have as low an income as two dollars for that day's work and yet belong to the middle class. If the middle class has to earn over five dollars a day, it will disappear in Africa. This indicates that the economic growth the continent as a whole has experienced over the last 15 years, is not evenly distributed across the population. Rather, on the contrary, the authors show that the inequality between rich and poor is increasing sharply and that the middle class, the middle class, is not getting its "share" in the economic prosperity.

The "middle class" in Africa, like the poor, are experiencing uncertainty about unemployment, illness and price increases for basic commodities.

Increasing differences. Sirkku Hellsten uses his chapter to show that there is no direct link between increased middle class and increased (demand for) democracy in Africa, as many claim has been the case in Europe. She believes that in today's Africa, there are so many different value systems, blends of traditional solidarity and individualism, patrimonialism and self-reliance that class analyzes lose explanatory power. That the middle class in Africa, at least in Tanzania that Hellsten writes about most, is also totally dependent on the elite goodwill in order to be able to run entrepreneurship or to get a usable paid job in the state, means that they are not necessarily the driving force for a strong democracy. This will weaken the power of the elite, which in turn will reduce the middle class' opportunity to remain middle class. For that, the poor are too many. Akinkugbe and Karl Wohlmuth are on the same page when they argue that the middle class must be a driving force for the state to provide public services such as security, education, health services, infrastructure if they want to help change the societies they live in. But they conclude that the upper middle class buys the services that the public sector is expected to offer in the private market instead, because the state does not do its job. The lowest middle class, on the other hand, does not have the financial means to do so, nor the capacity to pressure the state to provide the services at a low enough price. Thus, the lowest middle class remains marginalized and stern, while the upper middle class aspires to become elite.

Middle class for everyone. In addition to the general chapters in the first half of the book, it also contains case studies from Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, Angola and Tanzania. Such detailed studies have been lacking in previous academic analyzes of the "middle class" in Africa. I write "middle class" in quotation marks because I agree with those authors in the book who are very skeptical of using the term on Africans at all. In his chapter on Angola, Jon Schubert would rather use "politically conscious, non-poor people" than "middle class" about this population group in the country. Dieter Neubert claims that the "middle class" in Kenya is characterized by having strong family ties, being religious, having someone in the circle of acquaintances who has traveled from the country and sends money home as well as being active users of mobile telephony. But, he says, exactly the same thing characterizes the poor as well as the elite. Still – the "middle class" has more in common with the poor by constantly feeling insecure in relation to unemployment, illness and price increases for basic goods. Neubert's attempts to divide the Kenyan population into Bourdieu-inspired socio-cultural groups show that almost everyone, in one way or another, can be said to belong to the middle class. There are very few who want to talk about themselves as poor or as rich. Both are stigmatizing, although wealth is more accepted than poverty. Neubert questions whether the desires of the African middle class are inspired by the life of the global middle class. Then it is at least clear that the African Bank's economic definition is not a good indication of who belongs to the middle class; Global middle-class goods such as an old used car and higher education often cost more in Africa than in Europe.

South African exception. Editor Melber concludes by saying that the concept of middle class is difficult to use appropriately in Africa. While class may have something to do with it, he points out that other identities and communities of interest such as ethnicity, religion, clan affiliation, color (or Brightness and as he politically correctly calls it) plays a much bigger role than class. And although the chapter as

Global middle-class goods such as an old used car and higher education often cost more in Africa than in Europe.

with analyzes from South Africa concluding that the class aspect is very relevant and the middle class highly existing, I would argue that South Africa is the exception on the continent; the country has had both apartheid and large-scale mining, both of which have provided fertile ground for a common working class identity, with some, after 1994, gradually evolving towards a middle class. In the rest of Africa, on the other hand, I agree with those contributors who believe that "middle class" is an unusable category for understanding both solidarity and identity among Africans today.

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