30 March 2006

Zimbabwe: Does Middle Class Exist in Zim?

Harare — DOES the middle class exist in Zimbabwe?

This is one of the vigorously debated questions among social classes in the country battling to survive the rising cost of living while at the same time trying to maintain their prestige in differing ways. There are mixed reactions as to what exactly constitutes the middle in Zimbabwe. Political and social analysts agree generally that Zimbabwe has a small and conspicuous middle class that can be identified using Eurocentric or colonial arguments. They say the middle class refers generally to people who are neither at the top nor at the bottom of a social hierarchy. They agree too, that the term applies to people who have a degree of economic independence but not a great deal of social influence or power in society.

This would be in contrast to the lower class which relies heavily on wages earned from an employer or landlord as well as an upper class who can live on their investments. "We have a very conspicuous one (middle class) that draws itself from a colonial background, " said Prof Heneri Dzinotyiwei, a political analyst who also teaches at the University of Zimbabwe. "It's a relative concept (social class structures) and in general anyone in middle management and upwards belongs to the middle class."

Dr Godfrey Chikowore, the head of the international relations at the Institute of Development Studies says arguments on the middle class are Eurocentric and with the attainment of independence, social classes in Zimbabwe have evolved in a pattern of their own. "The middle class is there but it's a class with values and norms different from the European and American models," he said. "Here it would relate to people in managerial position, in administration, business and not in the CEO levels."

Social analysts here agree that the country's middle class may probably include assistant secretaries and upwards in government, principals in colleges, researchers and lecturers in universities, middle managers in companies, doctors, lawyers, financiers and other professionals in key and well paying jobs. The term "middle class" has a long history and has had many, sometimes contradictory, meanings in various social settings. It was in the past defined by exception as an intermediate social class between the nobility and the peasantry in Europe.

Historians say in the early industrial capitalist stages, the middle class was defined as white collar workers, those who worked for wages like all other workers but did so in conditions that were comfortable and safe compared to the conditions for blue collar toilers of the working class. In life today, they say the size of the middle class depends on how it is defined whether by education, wealth, environment of upbringing, genetic relationship and social networks among other factors. Using the Eurocentric perceptions, social analysts cite about five factors that may attempt to define the middle class. They say the achievement of tertiary education by financiers, lawyers, doctors and other professionals can be an important indicator to a middle class including the belief in bourgeois values such as good housing, jobs perceived as secure and food.

Middle class lifestyles can also be judged by pointers such as accent, manners, place of education and the class of a person's circle of friends and acquaintances. Low levels of union membership and an average yearly income of say US$30 000 in the US can point to whether one is in the middle class or not in North America or Europe. "The essential middle class stations of Zimbabwe include their penchant for the high life, international trips and their subsumptions into the trappings of good life," said a social analyst. A 2004 study in South Africa used an average household income of between R6 455 and R11 566 per month to define the burgeoning black middle class in that country.

Ms Ashley Dhlamini, a consultant with one of the country's leading employment agencies - Lorimak said the national market average i ncomes for people perceived to be in the middle income ranges is between $20 million and $35 million per month according to their August 2005 survey. "Different markets pay different salaries but generally middle income averages range between $20 million and $35 million while for the CEOs range mostly between $60 million and $250 million depending on the company," she said. In some companies, she says, CEOs can even hit the $1 billion mark per month depending on the size and performance of the company. Dhlamini says national averages for middle income earners in the finance, insurance, banking, mining, telecomms, services and local authorities sectors are within the $20 to $35 million per month.

Using the official rates of R1 to ZD$4 065, for an average middle income household in Zimbabwe to match their regional counterparts in South Africa, they would have to earn between $26,2 million and $47,2 million per month. For them to match middle income levels in developed countrie s, they would have to earn about US$2 500 per month which translates roughly to about ZD$65 million per month using the latest official exchange rates.

Prof Dzinotyiwei says the prevailing economic hardships have resulted in distorted social classes leading to situations in which one may find say a messenger, driver or secretary perceived as being in the lower class earning much more than professionals in the middle income levels. "They have been hit hard because of the nature of the economy," he says. "They have been pushed into the limits of hard life. "Most virtually have no houses, cars and decent salaries for a good life. "We have distortions in our economy and this is one of the biggest problems that kills incentives. You have situations in which a company secretary lives in Borrowdale while her boss lives in Chitungwiza. "This confusion is common in most developing countries and has seen non-salaried and non-professional people living better lives compared to trained professionals surviving on their salaries," he says. He says there are dangers to this. "The collapse of the formal economy has its own dangers. "Hard work shifts to deals, there is excessive brain drain as professionals look for better working conditions elsewhere and people don't find any incentive to learn and get degrees when someone running a flea market is driving a Merc," he said. Dr Chikowore says the middle class in Zimbabwe can be found anywhere, in rural areas, in high and low density suburbs due to various socio-economic and cultural factors. "There are cultural influences at work here. Some people in the middle class who may qualify to stay in Borrowdale and Mt Pleasant may choose to stay in Mbare, Highfield or Chitungwiza because of their social and cultural backgrounds," he said. "It's the vision of an African, they wouldn't want to be associated with the mostly European view that they should stay in leafy suburbs. "They come closer to home, they retain a stro ng sense of identity with their people in the 'locations'. "In the high density suburbs, the atmosphere and socialisation remains truly African, you remain yourself in the way you talk and socialise. You are not a stranger among your people unlike the alienation one sees in low density suburbs where one can stay for 25 years without knowing who his neighbour is," he said critically.

He added that the definition of middle class is European but Africans have their own unwritten definition of middle class, a version which can see the well-heeled living with the poor in high density suburbs. "They may want to enjoy a sense of belonging rather than face the depressing lifestyle in low density suburbs which is often tainted by racism, discrimination, pride and other norms that are alien in African settings," Dr Chikowore said. Despite the differing perceptions about the middle class, analysts say this class is largely seen as a stabilising factor between the explosive revolutionar y tendencies of the lower class (peasant workers) and absolutist tendencies and excesses of the entrenched upper class. They say by virtue of their education and income, the middle class adds value to the economic development of the country through its skills and knowledge They say their desire to accumulate material wealth - to buy cars, houses, household goods and appliances and other things drive production and progressive in terms of national output. But radicals using Marxism, define social classes not according to wealth and privilege but according to their relationship with the means of production. To them, Zimbabwe comprises one capitalist class that owns the means of production and the other that has none and has the ability to work and must seek employment in order to make a living. "It's either you are rich or you are poor in Zimbabwe," said one commentator. "With the prevailing hardships, this is becoming more evident." He says those perceived to be in the middle class are living under stress and cannot survive the rising cost of houses, health care and school fees and even to save enough for retirement and are shouldering a growing debt load.

On average, a worker needs about $28 million a month to survive and yet the majority of them earn below $7 million plunging them into aggravating poverty. According to a 2003 poverty assessment study, total consumptive poverty increased from 42 percent in 1995 to 63 percent in 2003. Inflation has eroded incomes of various social classes in Zimbabwe and with the recent increases in the price of fuel there is now a yawning gap between the elite and the rest of the population. At this rate the penchant for the middle class for a faux Rolex, cellphone, trendy fashion, good upmarket homes and cars and other pointers to prosperity will remain elusive just as it is for the majority of the poor.

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