South Africa's Real Ticking Time Bomb: The Black Middle Class

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Our real ‘ticking time bomb’ may be not poverty, but what it always has been – race. Our angriest people may not be those forced to survive on much less than they need, but the black middle class.

Poverty is our biggest problem: it affects most people and imposes huge economic and social costs. But the frequently heard claim that poor people are about to rise up and destroy the economy ignores reality: poverty usually forces people to be more pragmatic because more is at stake. The poor are not yet organised enough and still too isolated from economic power to change society.

Middle class people, by contrast, can organise and make themselves heard. And, if middle class people are black, they may be very angry.

The point was illustrated during a recent radio debate whose audience was overwhelmingly black and middle class. Callers angrily insisted that they were considering voting for the EFF in Gauteng because the ANC was reportedly considering appointing a white person as the province’s premier. Why was that a problem? The callers were lawyers, managers or business people: all complained of workplace experiences with whites who, in their view, failed to take them seriously or recognise their dignity.

One radio discussion does not make a trend. But the fact that 400 000 voters did choose the EFF in Gauteng suggests that there were many more angry black professionals in the province than those who called in to the radio station. What evidence we have suggests that the ANC lost ground in Gauteng primarily because the black middle class deserted it – and that an important reason for the shift was a sense that, two decades into democracy, black professionals and business people may live vastly better than previous generations, but face the same racial attitudes and sense of exclusion, even if the process is now subtler.

This anger upsets two common beliefs. First, that entry into the middle class is likely to make black people happier with the market economy and that racial contact in the workplace is sure to make people get on better with each other.
This ignores two realities. One is that race still matters here and that it matters most to black people in business and the professions because it is they who are at the sharp end of the racial interface.

Some unemployed black people don’t have any contact with whites at all – a study in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, found that up to a third of residents spoke no English or Afrikaans, which surely means that they have little or no contact with whites: for them, white attitudes are an abstract problem. Black blue collar workers may experience workplace racism but the effects are reduced by a tendency among many large companies to hire black managers who deal with black workers. Professionals, on the other hand, spend most of their time in direct contact with white people.

The other reality is that many black professionals experience racial mixing as a process not of affirmation but of constant belittling. And so the result is not more tolerance and the happy racial mixing featured in beer ads but anger at what is seen as the persistence of the white attitudes which underpinned apartheid.

Racial pecking orders in business and the professions have not died – that much is obvious to anyone who spends time engaging with businesses. Not only are the upper echelons of companies still mainly white. but the way people engage with each other has hardly shifted. There are obvious exceptions but, at many engagements with companies, it is the white people who speak during the formal sessions and the black people who wait until the meeting is over to approach an invited speaker, not only to ask questions but, at times, to point out that the attitudes which black managers express to their white colleagues are not necessarily those they really hold.

None of this should be all that surprising. Apartheid was underpinned by attitudes far too deeply held to disappear in two decades – the assumption that only whites are competent to perform complicated tasks dies hard.  This affects our national debate: much of the stress on ‘leaving the markets alone’ is code for freeing the white people who run the private economy from the control of black people who run the government. Inevitably, it affects attitudes in the workplace too.

This past may also have ensured that black people enter the middle class with little confidence and little trust. And so it would be naïve to expect the beer ads to describe the real world.

How much of this is white bigotry and how much a sense by black people that they have been thrust into a world shaped by others where they are given little help to enable them to feel at home is not clear - it is surely both. But what is clear is that the cutting edge of racial mistrust is not the streets of townships or shack settlements but the air-conditioned offices of our major cities.

The angry black middle class will have limited influence on future elections - even if they all desert the ANC, their numbers are likely to remain too small for too long to make them a major power at the ballot box. But the way race plays out in business and the professions is a huge problem for the society. It places a permanent limit on developing talent, makes open conversation about our economic and political priorities far more difficult and distorts our debate because racial anger in the middle class is often confused with rebellion by workers and the poor. And it remains a potential threat to democracy because it makes tolerance and mutual respect more difficult.

In the early 1990s, racial attitudes in the middle class were a major issue for a society negotiating a new political order. When democracy was achieved, the social power holders - business, the professions, academics, the media - seemed to decide that race was a problem no longer because everyone had the vote and formal rights. And so racial tensions which should have been addressed over the past two decades were ignored.

The anger confirms that this was a mistake. The problem has not disappeared and, if it is not addressed now, we may pay a rising price for ignoring our deepest divide.

Friedman is the Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg. 

Picture credit: Black Entrepreneur Magazine

By Steven Friedman · 3 Jun 2014

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