25. Emerging African Middle Classes

E-mail of panel organiser: iina.soiri@nai.uu.se

Over the last year we’ve seen more attention to how economic development has paved the way for, and been driven by, the growing middle classes in many African countries. The emerging African middle classes are perceived not only as a critical economic force, but potentially also a wrench for political and social transformation.  But what is the reality of these ongoing transformations in terms of the role and position of the middle class?

In this panel we want to explore the multiplex phenomenon of the African middle class(es).  Some of the issues/questions to be explored:

- The fragile economic and social definition and position of the middle classes – ‘many middle classes’ – and how do they differ in country contexts?
- How well does the narrative about the globalizing consumerist middle class ‘fit’ African
experiences - are there more to the story than the dream of a western life styles and consumerism?
- What are the tensions and prospects between middle class as liberal entrepreneurs and as active democratic citizens?
- Political middle class and an African spring. What are the potential for alliances between middle class and working class issues More than gated communities? Middle classes and changing patterns of socio-spatial inclusion and exclusion in African cities
- An education leap? Does education and access to information for a growing middle class make room for change?
- Middle class and broad-based growth in Africa? Is the growing middle class a driver or a buffer for growing inequality?

1. Law, politics and the emerging Zambian middle class

Author: Jeremy Gould (University of Jyväskylä, Finland)


The neoliberal restructuring of African public economies since the 1990s midwifed the emergence of new socio-economic groups which espouse values and embody lifestyles that resemble, to a large extent, those of the 'global' middle strata visible in virtually every corner of the planet. These socially heterogeneous, upperly mobile, self-confident groups have been a central pillar of the burgeoning 'civil society' formations which have captured significant political space in many African societies during this same period.
   A theoretical tradition associated closely with Jürgen Habermas predisposes social scientists to view this emerging middle class stratum as potential champions of political liberalism - a more open and vibrant public sphere, the consolidation of 'bourgeois' political values, and modes of engaged citizenship committed to greater individual freedoms. A countervailing template for the analysis of the socio-political effects of this sociological transition comes from a tradition of postcolonial theory, from Fanon to Spivak, which cautions skepticism about the liberalism of the postcolonial petty bourgeoisie. From this perspective, the emerging middle classes cannot be expected to promote greater openness and freedom, but are rather likely to embrace forms of self-serving, autocratic and exclusionary political agency.
    Empirical observations from a number of countries across the continent can be cited in support of either of these models, often within the same jurisdiction. This paper seeks to problematize the assumptions underlying both traditions. To this end, the analysis exploits the author's long-term ethnographic engagement with a pivotal component of the emergent middle classes in Zambia - lawyers and closely aligned rights activists - to interrogate how the sociological transition spurred by the economic liberalization of the 1990s has contributed to the translation of postcolonial governmentalities into new ideological forms and modes of ruling.
    The paper suggests that these new practices of government are grounded in an amplified significance of legalism as an ideology of government fueled by, among other factors, global discourses that privilege 'rule of law' and 'rights-based development.' This makes lawyers a particularly opportune site of scrutiny for thinking about the relationship between processes of class and state formation in contemporary Africa.

2. What is the role of the expanding middle class in solving African governance challenges in the era of afro-libertarian political economy ?

Author: Sirkku K. Hellsten (University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and the University of Helsinki, Finland)


Africa has suffered, during the recent decades, from serious problems of bad and failed governance with endemic corruption. The international development cooperation with its requirements of ‘good governance’ and respect for human rights has not significantly succeeded in improving the overall situation, sometimes it rather appears to result in enforcing ‘pseudo-democratic’ practices.  The externally funded programmes focusing on reforms of governance, justice, law and order sectors have not had the desired impact. Instead, the scandals and persistent corruption in various African countries have continued persistently. The governance situation in Africa has generated debates and concerns not only about lack of political integrity and public trust in number of African states. It also has raised questions about the applicability of universal and internationally applicable standards of leadership and public service ethics in evidently very different historical and cultural context.

The paper analysis some of the main causes of this situation, and what it takes to tackle the governance challenges.  The author argues that the relationship between traditional culture and African contemporary political economy has created socio-political context that can best be labeled as 'afro-libertarism'.  Afro-libertarism results from the failed integration of the demands of global free market economy with the African traditional communalist approach to social justice. This has created partial and biased governance practices that encourage corruption, nepotism, croyism, and other forms of favoritism. These practices also prevent institutional structures and political cooperation from working for the benefit of all citizens thus enforcing the narrow advantage of the elites, as well as of those ethnically or otherwise close to them. The papers continues to examine how the current global development paradigm and related policies further enforce these structures - not only in Africa but rather globally leaving also the partner government vulnerable to poor governance.  Particular attention is paid on how the situation further enforces fragmentation of African society to socio-economic classes which have little contact – and few shared interests - with each other. The author challenges the argument that African expanding middle-class will solve some of the most striking governance issues. The problems of Africans social classes living in poverty are not of interest of the new middle class, as it is too busy catching up with the global trends of consumer society.
The author suggests that in order to be able to bring about social equality and alleviate poverty, there is an urgent need to move away from the vicious cycle of bad governance based on individual and sub-national loyalties and class-related interests rather than the common good. If we want to promote more impartial forms of governance in Africa, reform programmes need to be based on redefined politico-ideological trends which can re-define the values of post-colonial African humanism which is calling for solidarity and ‘moral economy’.

Kenya and Tanzania are used as study cases. Particular attention is based in analysis why the donor supported governance reforms have failed in these two countries. They also present interesting post-colonial ideological differences that in the current context are nevertheless merging into afro-libertarian practices.

3. Middle Class(es) in (Southern) Africa - A Critical Assessment

Author: Henning Melber (Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, Sweden)


The notion of an emerging middle class has gained prominent currency in recent times, not least by the emphasis placed on the role of such a class in the UNDP’s Human Development Report 2013. As a segment in society, the middle class is considered as innovative and an engine for transition to modernity and development.
This paper takes stock of the debate on the middle class(es) in Sub-Saharan Africa with particular reference to Southern Africa and tests the concept against the empirical realities. It critically analyses the current praise of the middle class(es) role in promoting social progress and looks into trends in mainly Southern African societies.

4. Kiswahili Video –film Industry in Tanzania: The Middle Class-Elite Paradox

Author: Vicensia Shule (University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania)


Kiswahili video-film industry has flourished from its existence in mid 1990s. Started with a single film in a year to over 500 two decades later, demonstrates such growth. Self-trained screenwriters, actors, production crewmembers who account for over 90% of the total filmmakers population, control the industry. The industry relies mostly on lower class people as the main source of artists and consumers of the films. The middle class-elite regards Kiswahili video-films as poor and of low standard in terms of content and quality of packaging compared to Hollywood films.
Less involvement of the Tanzania’s middle class-elite in the industry has substantial effects including lack of sustainable capital investment as well as limited distribution channels. This article is about the perception of the middle class-elite on the Kiswahili video-films in Tanzania. The article argues that, the ‘unprofessional’ nature of the industry is a reflection of the ‘pauper’ middle class-elite of Tanzania. It further asserts the need for purposive ‘enlightenment’ and involvement of the middle class not only in the production but also in the consumption of the films.

5. Study on social impact of stock market development on Kenyan and South African citizens

Author: Curtis Kidd Telemaque (Visions Consulting Group, USA)


Historical evidence suggests financial markets are positively linked to economic development via savings rates, global exposure for local companies, fostering foreign and domestic investments, creating information symmetry, exerting corporate control, and allocating capital.  Consequently, stock markets in Africa are explored by academics and policy-makers as mechanisms to foster economic development throughout the sub-Saharan region. 
The study examines the social impact of stock market development on Kenyan and South African citizens.  Focus groups were used to observe middle-class, working-class, and professional-class black Kenyans’ perceptions and concerns of the Nairobi Stock Exchange.  In addition, several interviews from South Africa’s professional, and middle working-class were used to gather similar data on the investing habits and perceptions of Black South Africans.  Research efforts revealed most Kenyan and South African middle working-class citizens are aware of the economic potential of their respective financial market system.  Kenyan citizens, across socio-economic levels, utilize the stock market as an additional vehicle to enhance their financial well-being in the short-term.  South African investors from the professional class perceive the stock market as a savings vehicle that will enhance their long-term financial goals. 
Additional analyses show financial market development in Africa must be accompanied by favorable economic policies, education, transparency, and infrastructure development in order to benefit most citizens.  Political and economic stability in Kenya and South Africa will spur growth among its middle working-class; therefore, further investigation of this population’s investment habits is necessary to gauge evolving understanding and uses of the stock market in national development.


Authors: Jason Musyoka and Jennifer Houghton (University of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa)


Given South Africa’s racially divided past, the post-apartheid state sees its legitimacy as founded on its’ effectiveness in dissolving racial divides in economics, politics and in the social space. Within this framework, the state considers affirmative action as a double edged sword which will effectively correct the country’s history and effectively address poverty and unemployment at a quicker pace. Although the redistribution agenda has occupied a central role in South Africa’s post 1994 development policy, there are no indications in the country’s policy documents to suggest that an expanding middle class was an expected outcome. A growing middle class was of course inevitable considering affirmative action logic, except that the state was committed to processes of racial balancing without much consideration of how this balancing would interact with class dynamics.
The middle class discourse is largely dominated by media as well as lay perspectives, and effectively, critical thinking is largely missing in the middle class debate. Less is therefore known about the kind of development occurring as a function of an emerging middle class. This is a fundamental blind spot.
Although literature on the middle class has tended to focus more on middle class consumerism and less on its redistributive role, this paper does not question the possibility for the middle class to redistribute wealth. What it questions (and seeks to answer) is the substance of this redistribution, and the possibilities it holds in addressing structural poverty.
The paper will posit that the emerging middle class is gaining redistribution grounds which have traditionally been a preserve of the state. It therefore commits to enlighten on how the emerging middle class is negotiating the underdevelopment space on behalf of the state, and whether this middle class – development concession is producing development tokenism or real development gains.

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