These days the African middle class is widely discussed as a phenomenon considered indicative of social change. Only a few years ago a handful of economists managed to initiate such a debate, which originally started outside of the continent in a more global context. This ultimately had a considerable impact on African Studies, after institutions such as the African Development Bank jumped on the bandwagon.
Scholars from various disciplines gradually reacted to a kind of imposed discourse, over which they only now increasingly gain the upper hand and are able to claim ownership. New publications testify to increasingly concerted efforts to respond by means of different and more nuanced perspectives.
Especially in the early stages of the current debate, many contributions lacked a more rigorous analysis, which examines the so-called middle class in terms of its potential as a proper class. They hardly bothered to engage with the more methodological aspects of the analysis of classes, which has a long tradition in social sciences and should be an integral part of the engagement with the phenomenon.
Most problematic is the fiddling with figures, which classifies people according to a minimum income as middle class. This illustrates the deficiency as regards a proper class definition. It puts the almost exclusive emphasis on the financial/monetary aspect. But professional and social status, cultural norms and lifestyle related attributes as well as political orientation(s) and influence were often ignored or only considered in passing as a secondary aspect.
The discovery of the middle class(es) is on closer inspection by no means engaging with a social phenomenon.
"Middle class" was rather used in an inflationary manner to cover almost everything without any further internal differentiations that exist within a very broad band of income groups. A concept as vague as this signifies little to nothing and is devoid of almost any analytical substance.
In the meantime, the ominous middle classes occupy the thoughts of economists, political scientists, sociologists and social anthropologists alike, often still with strikingly a-historical perspectives. They display hardly any awareness of social trajectories representing not as new developments of class-related social structures as often suggested.
The discovery of the middle class(es) is on closer inspection by no means engaging with a social phenomenon, which would be as new as this trend and some of the contributions to the debate suggests. One just needs to recall the works of Frantz Fanon and Amilcar Cabral, who discuss the African petty bourgeoisie of their days. Their analyses and subsequent deliberations were rather similar to today's discussions, though seen from a perspective more aware of class analysis.
In contrast, the current debate appears to be rather short in memory given the obvious but largely ignored earlier analyses on African elites. It promotes to a large extent the assumption that the middle class(es) are a positive ingredient for the development of and in African societies. But such optimism seems rather unwanted both in terms of the potential economic role of such middle classes as well as regards the expectations concerning their political relevance.
What is lumped together as middle classes represent at best an opaque awareness... about society and their position, aims and aspirations.
In an era where the proletariat or working class has to a large extent faded away and the class-related distinction has become fuzzier, the earlier class analysis requires adaptation too. But it has not lost all meaning. So then, what class is/are the middle class(es)?
What is lumped together as middle classes represent at best an opaque awareness if not about themselves [in the plural], then at least about society and their position, aims and aspirations? Such ambiguity explains the different political and social orientations of members of a middle class, their different roles and positions in social struggles and their difference in interests.
The conclusions seem to suggest that there is no social force in the making, which by status and definition would indeed be the torch bearer for more democracy, participation, human rights, social equality and redistribution of wealth beyond interests in group-centered own benefits. One might call this to some extent a class interest, shared by many members of these middle classes across the continent. But depending on the circumstances ethnicity, pigmentation and other criteria [not least religion] matter at least as much as such at best diffuse class awareness.
This will and should not stand in the way of continued interest in this species called middle class, which at a closer look is not as new as some of the contributions to the wider debate seem to suggest. After all, there were always some middle layers of societies with a set of differing interests and orientations -– only that their visibility and size in African countries seems to have increased lately.
It is neither the middle class(es) nor even the upper fifth of the income pyramid that has any influence on the distribution of wealth in societies.
We should, however, be much more cautious and reluctant to offer simplified and sweeping explanations as regards the scope of potential social and political reforms and the impact for change in the sense of the transformation of societies such middle classes are able or willing to promote.
After all, it is neither the middle class(es) nor even the upper fifth of the income pyramid that has any influence on the distribution of wealth in societies. They too are at the receiving end. It is indeed the top decimal [if not the top five per cent or an even smaller fraction] among the haves that has grasped the steering wheel. Their forms of appropriation and enrichment are the ultimate determinants of the scope and limit of poverty reduction by means of redistributive measures in favour of those in the bottom half of society.
To understand inequalities and the mechanisms of their reproduction, the motto coined by Gabriel Palma is appropriate: 'It's the share of the rich, stupid'. One is tempted to suspect that the middle class(es) hype in some of the contexts we witness seeks to propose a historical mission of these social layers in terms of future perspectives, which in the light of the real [also material and political] power relations and structures of societies and the global economy they are never able to live up to.
Despite such critical observations and sobering conclusions, however, the current engagement with the phenomenon called the African middle class(es) is anything but obsolete. Independent of their size, they signify modified social relations in African societies, which indeed deserve attention and rigorous analysis. With the emphasis on the latter.
** Edited extracts from the Introduction and Conclusion of Henning Melber (ed.), The Rise of Africa's Middle Class. Myths, Realities and Critical Engagements. Johannesburg: Wits University Press 2017 and London: Zed Books 2016.