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Zed Books

A major claim of the purveyors of the ‘Africa rising’ narrative is the expansion of the African middle classes. Africanist scholarship has built upon this narrative, placing heavy emphasis upon such key issues as definition, consumption and the fragility of the ‘new’ middle classes across the continent. This book, the latest such offering amidst a burgeoning literature, confirms this trend, and is set to become a standard work of reference.

'The Rise of Africa’s Middle Classes: Myths, Realities and Critical Engagements’, edited by Henning Melber. London: Zed Books 2016 and Johannesburg: Wits University Press 2017, 219 pp.

Institutions such as the World Bank and African Development Bank regularly propagandise that as a product of ‘Africa Rising’, the African middle class is also rising. Albeit spread unevenly across different countries, this new version African middle class is said to be becoming more prominent, more visible and more influential with the spread of market capitalism. In turn, Africanist scholarship has built upon this narrative, placing heavy emphasis upon such key issues as definition, consumption and the fragility of the ‘new’ middle classes across the continent. This book, the latest such offering amidst a burgeoning literature, confirms this trend, and is set to become a standard work of reference.

It would seem from the title of the book that the African middle class is unambiguously ‘rising’, yet that assertion is questioned by at least three of the authors. Henning Melber, in both his introduction and conclusion, takes strong issue with the rather curious income or expenditure definitions of middle class-ness adopted by the global institutions, some of which label Africans living just above the poverty line as ‘middle class’. He queries whether it is growing as fast as is usually implied, suggests that it may have declined in size since the global crisis in 2008, and wonders whether it is meaningful to refer to it as ‘middle class’. Even so, he concludes that the current engagements with ‘the phenomenon called the African middle classes(es) is anything but obsolete’ as ‘they signify modified social relations in African societies which deserve attention’ (p9). That rather lukewarm endorsement must be taken as the justification for the collection, even if the editor might usefully have impressed upon the publishers the need for a question mark in the book’s title.  

The outstanding chapter in the book is offered by Carola Lentz (Ch. 1) who provides a superb overview of the literature, historical and contemporary, dealing with those groups in African societies today customarily referred to as ‘middle class’. She too bewails the poverty of definitions provided by the global institutions. However, she moves beyond that to explore the rich troves of literature dealing with the African middle classes while urging the necessity of relating this to the vast body of work dealing with middle class formation in Europe, America and the global South. Suffice it to say that her chapter is enormously wide ranging, comprehensive and sophisticated, and is set to become a standard text on any university reading list dealing with class in Africa. Middle class is a multi-dimensional concept, she concludes, ‘that refers to a socio-economic category, a cultural world, and a political discourse’. Such an ‘open perspective’ demands that we abandon the ‘reified and deterministic theorizations of class’ too often adopted (p.46).

Discussions which pick up on themes introduced by Melber and Lentz are provided by Tim Stoffel (Ch. 2), Sirku Hellsten (Ch. 4) and Oluyele Akingube and Karl Wohlmuth (Ch. 3). While not wanting to abandon approaches to middle classes focused on income, consumption or assets et cetera, Stoffel argues that they will fall short unless they seek to incorporate understandings of their human capacities. Incorporating a human development and capability approach may help to better distinguish between the poor and middle class. Similarly, Sirku Hellsten queries the assumptions made about the African middle class by the global institutions. They seem to assume, she argues, that the expansion of the middle class will produce loyal tax payers, create productive entrepreneurs and generate enlightened citizens who will contribute to better governance and democracy. She argues that even if such attributes can be uniformly ascribed to the middle classes in Europe, which she doubts, it seems unlikely that African middle classes will move in a normative direction that is not part of their culture.

In turn, albeit from a more mainstream perspective, Oluyele Akinkgube and Karl Wohlmuth explore the role of the African middle class as a base for the development of entrepreneurship. Their thrust is that this is hampered by the ‘missing middle’: that is, there are too few small and medium sized companies to fill the space between large companies and the micro-enterprises which are the typical vehicles of African entrepreneurs.  Indeed, African entrepreneurship is overwhelmingly ‘survival’ than ‘growth-oriented’, remaining dependent upon their linkages with governments and big business if they are to play a genuinely developmental role. It is a pity, however, that they fail to link their analysis to the classic literature on African capitalism.

The remaining chapters deal with a diverse array of topics across an equally diverse array of countries. Dieter Neubert (Ch. 5) queries the applicability of conventional class analysis to Kenya (at least for the present time).  Nkwachukwu Oriji (Ch. 6) (the one case study drawn from West Africa), reports that the political activism of the Nigerian middle class reflects their involvement in social media rather than their involvement in formal political organisations. Jon Schubert (Ch. 7) finds that despite growing middle class discontent with the material realities of life in Angola, there is little prospect of this challenging the hegemonic project of the ruling MPLA. Similarly, Jason Sumich (Ch. 8) argues that because middle class privilege in Mozambique continues to revolve around political connections to the ruling party, Frelimo, the transformation potential of the middle class outside existing political structures is limited.

Amuzweni Ngoma (Ch. 9) finds black professionals in South Africa torn between their positive recognition that the ANC has done much to develop the black middle class and their negative assessment of its poor performance in government. Accordingly, rather than moving into outright opposition by supporting the Democratic Alliance, they either withdraw from formal political participation or give their backing to alternative political black political parties. Viensia Shule (Ch. 10) explores the limited involvement in both the production and consumption of the Tanzanian middle class in local Kiswahili video films. Regarding it as of lesser standard than videos made elsewhere, their lack of interest and investment threatens the very survival of this nascent local industry.

Both Lentz and Melber sketch out the way forward for future research on middle classes. The former calls for more sophisticated theorisations of class in Africa, explorations of different trajectories of class formation, and the need to tackle the question of ‘African exceptionalism’.  The latter argues that while the contemporary middle class debate is of central importance, it needs to be related to discussions concerning the growing gulf between the super-rich and the rest: what does being in the middle really mean if the overwhelming proportion of global wealth is in the hands of a miniscule elite? These would all be immensely valuable lines of enquiry. In brief, as Melber concedes in his concluding paragraph, study of the African middle class is an unending project, and much remains to be done.

* Roger Southall is based at the Department of Sociology, University of the Witwatersrand, and is Research Associate in Political Studies, University of Cape Town.



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