4 February 2013

South Africa: The Politics of the Black Middle Class

opinion

Before the 2009 general elections, political pundits predicted that a shift of black electoral support from the African National Congress (ANC) to Congress of the People (COPE) was inevitable. It was further pointed out that this shift was going to occur along class lines; we were told that the black middle class perceived COPE as the political party that could represent its class interest. Although COPE won about seven percent of the national vote in the 2009 elections, the internecine feud among its leaders has effectively made the party politically irrelevant.

The debate regarding which political party best represents the interests of the black middle class in post-apartheid South Africa remains a hot topic though. The latest news is that Mamphela Ramphele is planning to launch her own political party that could attract black middle class voters away from the ANC in next year's general elections. Political commentators such as Justice Malala are of the view that Ramphele could have a profound impact in the battle for black middle class votes.

The assumption that shapes the discussion around the topic of an emerging black middle class is that class interests, rather than race, matters more to this social group. Although no social group is homogenous, it is accurate to say that the emerging black middle class, also known as 'black diamonds', value individual social mobility more than social equity.

Another characteristic of the emerging black middle class is that it is made up of educated people who are useful to social hierarchies. These are people who know their place in the hierarchy and instead of questioning it; they aspire to climb to the top.

When members of this class talk about racism or sexism, it is usually in the context of arguing for a meritocracy, and not in the context of advocating for social equality. This stance dovetails nicely with white liberal discourse.

The emerging black middle class prides itself on its professional credentials and 'professional attitude'. American thinker and writer, Jeff Schmidt, defines this 'professional attitude' as the manifestation of elitism and pompousness and the general feeling of being very much at home playing within the white liberal framework.

The black middle class makes the white liberal framework seem egalitarian. This is partly why it would be a mistake to see the black middle class as some sort of social victory.

The black middle class may have emerged out of a compromise between white capital and black nationalists, but that doesn't mean that the class interests of this group is consistent with the class interests of the poor black masses of post-apartheid South Africa.

Interestingly, as much as the black middle class is happy working within the white liberal framework, as a class this social group is different to the post-colonial white middle class.

It could be argued that social relations between the white and black middle class are characterised by social tension. To a certain extent the white middle class feels threatened by the black middle class. At the same time the black middle class feels that it doesn't receive the respect it deserves from the white middle class. As far as the white middle class is concerned, members of the black middle class have not achieved their social mobility through merit, but through affirmative action.

Post-apartheid white liberals regard affirmative action programmes as 'reverse racism'. Generally white liberals view struggles for racial justice in post-apartheid South Africa - a social environment which they argue is colour blind - as engaging in subterfuge. It is within this discourse that the phrase "playing the race card" has emerged.

Linda Williams, an American academic, explains that the phrase "playing the race card" alleges that one is cheating 'unraced competitors' who, in contrast, are playing with a full deck.

Naturally white liberal attitudes put off the black middle class and this is partly why some members of the black middle class are hesitant to join the Democratic Alliance (DA). The DA understands that it has to improve its public image in order to attract the black middle class to its ranks. Black leaders in the DA are partly there to facilitate this.

Political pundits agree that any political party that successfully attracts large numbers of the black middle class will emerge as a serious political rival to the hegemony of the ANC.

Justice Malala is of the view that Ramphele has the potential to form a political party that could achieve this. He argues, "Mamphela Ramphele is the kind of individual who many in the black middle class can identify with. She touches all the right bases: highly educated, well spoken. And given her background, she's got a fantastic narrative arc for post-apartheid South Africa - it's almost Obama-esque."

Similar statements were made about COPE before the 2009 general elections. It was argued that COPE was the party of the emerging black middle class with 'racial credentials'. Research surveys predicted that the party would receive up to 15 per cent of the black vote. That didn't happen and COPE is now roaming around the political wilderness.

To believe that a political party with its base in the emerging black middle class could seriously challenge the hegemony of the ANC reveals political ignorance of massive proportions.

Without the support of the poor black masses, the ANC and the new black middle class would not exist. The end to the ANC's hegemony will come when poor black people decide that they've had enough of government lies and the ANC's empty promises.

In my view, it is post-apartheid social movements that have the potential to bring about an emancipatory social agenda in this country. And although social movements have won significant political victories in the past, establishment political pundits do not talk about social movements as a political force that could bring about positive institutional changes in this country.

What this reveals is the kind of political change desired by establishment political commentators.

In other words, the underlying message behind the debate about whether or not Ramphele is planning to launch her own political party is that the best we can hope for is individual social mobility as opposed to social equity. That is what the post-apartheid Ramphele represents after all.

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