- The New Black Middle Class in South Africa by Roger Southall
Recently I had occasion to visit my bank and a local suburban shopping mall as I usually do. Much to my surprise, on this occasion as I entered and attended to everyday matters at these, I found that I was paying particular attention to the black African people–both staff and fellow customers–whom I encountered in my immediate orbit: bank clerks, checkout staff, floor managers and shoppers. Subliminally, I kept asking myself: are they members of the new black African middle class? If so, what are their personal trajectories, their life stories? What are their family backgrounds and how have they achieved their current statuses?
In retrospect, I realise that this newfound sensitivity on my part was a direct result of my having recently read Roger Southall’s book, The New Black Middle Class in South Africa. The book had clearly left a deep impression on me. On these grounds alone, I would unreservedly recommend it to anyone seriously interested in contemporary South African society. But what of the book itself?
This work, written as it is by an eminent senior modern South African academic, testifies to a growing awareness of the phenomenon of black embourgeoisement in scholarly circles. This, in turn, reflects a wider public curiosity about it. Nowadays, references to ‘black diamonds’ and ‘buppies’ in both the local media and amongst the suburban ‘chattering classes’ are not uncommon.
This contrasts with the fact that, for decades, South African academics remained preoccupied with the country’s black working class and, before that, with white Afrikaners, both of whom were viewed as critically shaping the country’s social landscape. The current interest in the black middle class thus not only makes for a refreshing change but suggests a new social [End Page 178] dynamic. It reflects dramatic changes occurring in post-apartheid South African society in the early twenty-first century. Moreover, these were seemingly totally unanticipated by the anti-apartheid radicals of the past who looked forward to a new classless South Africa devoid of race consciousness.
Given the extensive research on which this book is based, The New Black Middle Class in South Africa is clearly aimed primarily at a scholarly readership. However, it is likely to also attract the attention of many nonspecialist readers, and deservedly so. By virtue of its intensive research base, historical depth and the range of aspects discussed, I feel that it fully merits being subtitled: ‘processes of upward social mobility amongst black South Africans in the post-apartheid era’.
As to the details of the book, these are wide ranging in both depth and scope and are impressively covered. That Southall is interested in more than simply charting the rise and salient features of the new black middle class stratum is evident from the outset.
He wants to understand and account for the phenomenon. To this end, he begins by outlining the classical theories of social class formation advanced by Marx and Weber and subsequently modified by their epigoni. In so doing, Southall casts his work in the ‘great tradition’ of macro-level socio-political analysis. This notwithstanding, when his attention is turned to outlining the history of the black middle class in the twentieth century, Southall points to the significance of empirically-grounded local studies exemplifying the ‘little tradition’ such as Leo Kuper’s, An African Bourgeoisie (1965), Wilson and Mafeje’s study of the Cape Town black township of Langa (1965) and Brandel-Syrier’s Reeftown Elite (1971) As a Durbanite, that the earlier illuminating study of the city’s original black township of Baumannville (1959) is not mentioned is somewhat disappointing.1
Having thus laid the groundwork for his analysis in these opening chapters, Southall turns his full attention to the new black middle class of the ‘rainbow nation’ era. In a series of chapters he successively discusses black class formation under the ANC government, education and black upward social mobility, the black middle class at work, the leading features of their ‘social world’ and their politics and...