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  • The Rise of Africa’s Middle Class: myths, realities and critical engagements ed. by Henning Melber
  • Simphiwe Rens (bio)
Henning Melber (ed) (2017) The Rise of Africa’s Middle Class: myths, realities and critical engagements. Johannesburg: Wits University Press

The overarching motivation of this book is to contest and problematise the deployment, and prominently-ascribed meanings, of the ‘middle class’ in Africa. Editor Henning Melber’s opening discussion advocates for a more analytically nuanced reflection on this concept; one that moves beyond economist-driven rhetoric about ‘middleclassness’. This is a theme generally carried throughout the book.

The bright-sided heralding, by many global institutions, of an emerging middle class as ‘a possible ingredient for the development of and in African societies’ (6), is critically interrogated by this collection of chapters. Melber finds economic ascriptions to African middle class(es) to be a-historical and often void of intricate analytic exploration. Thus, the introduction casts parts of the literature on African middle class(es) as fundamentally misleading, and nothing but ‘wishful thinking, if not being an ideological smokescreen’ (8).

Carola Lentz – in the first and perhaps most conceptually engaging chapter – continues this line of argument by charting contemporary and historical literature, theoretical approaches and empirical studies, putting these in dialogue to problematise the adoption of the constructs of ‘elite’ and ‘middle class’ in Africa. She acknowledges that these constructs were initially coined by societal actors and have – since the end of the eighteenth century – become catchwords in political discourse, well before scholars [End Page 85] defined them in any systematic fashion. Lentz’s contribution argues that there is value in re-connecting studies historically focused on the elite with those focused on the middle class, to enhance the analytical frameworks of future studies on social stratification, particularly in an African context. Also worth noting are the three proposed methodological considerations (for researchers and scholars) in the deployment of class as a social construct: (i) as a taxonomic or analytical concept; (ii) as a bundle of possibly conscious or subconscious social practices creating markers of differentiation between social groups; and (iii) implying conscious self-identification by subjects across various social groups, fostering discursive constructions to aid the use of the construct.

Following Lentz’s highly engaging chapter, Tim Stoffel continues to question economic (often quantitative-driven) contributions to the middle class construct, by asking three important questions: how are statistics claimed to account for middle classes calculated; what conclusions and accompanying projections emerge as a result of these statistics; and do such conclusions have some explanatory power? While not really offering original empirical contributions, Stoffel’s discussion does highlight the limitations of relying on purely economic, quantitative-led contributions to the definition of class as social construct.

Offering a critical interrogation of the role of African middle classes as a base for the development of entrepreneurial pursuits on the continent, Oluyele Akinkugbe and Karl Wohlmuth in chapter three engage the idea of the ‘missing middle’. They adopt the concept along entrepreneurial lines and position this segment of society as occupying the gap between microenterprises and larger businesses. Referring to small and mediumsized enterprises, they argue them to be largely stifled by the sheer lack of beneficial state and public policy. The constant overemphasised celebration of an emerging middle class and its developmental potential is held problematically, to divert from and limit the socioeconomic and entrepreneurial development of this proposed missing middle.

Sirku Hellsten, in chapter four, continues to question the overstated ‘developmental’ attributions, credited to said emerging middle classes as ‘cures’ to Africa’s development. One of the chapter’s valuable contributions lies in its challenging of prevailing assumptions in some academic and business contexts that ‘the expansion of the middle class will somehow “automatically” steer Africa towards democracy and good governance’ (95). Arguing, essentially, that the middle class label lacks sufficient [End Page 86] analytic power, Dieter Neubert – in chapter five – draws on some empirical work carried out in Kenya to point to the inapplicability of the middle class label in present-day Kenya. This is followed by Nkwachukwu Orji’s chapter, which uses the ‘Bring Back Our Girls’ and ‘Occupy Nigeria 2012’ campaigns in Nigeria as key focal...


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pp. 85-87
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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