Contrary to marketers’ beliefs, the black middle-class is not a new phenomenon born in 2003 with the birth of the Black Economic Empowerment Act. There has always been a “big-house” in the middle of the township with its usual four-room houses. There were always a few lonely Cressidas, packed like a tin of Sardine, heading to Sunday service. For a long while, these homes time and again formed the financial backbone of their extended families, sending money, clothes and assisting in educating family members from poorer communities.
But this culture of supporting others on their way up has given way to a culture of charity.
Growing up, Charity was a middle-name given to a few unlucky girls (and on very rare occasions, a boy). One gave to family, one helped family, one never donated to family. We were not charitable people, we were supportive people. There was always a cousin or two sharing the home, although homes were often packed full. The boys would sleep on the kitchen floor, but as long as there was a blanket, the house was not yet full.
Money for food and education was sent religiously to the rural areas (home, as we called it). When times were tough economically, Christmas presents had to make way for school uniforms and textbooks that had to be sent back home. This was life.
Much funfair has been made about the rise of South Africa’s “new” black middle-class, with its microwaves, 42 inch LCD TVs, satellite TVs and shiny new German sports cars. Like a modern-day gold rush, companies have been trying to “get to grips” with this market, trying to “calculate” and “estimate” its spend, trying to entice it to walk into its doors and buy its stuff, on credit.
Quite taken by all this attention, this class (for a lack of a better word), has allowed itself to be defined simply as the Cinderella of consumerism, associated with glitzy cars, upmarket homes, buying and borrowing and “moving with the times”. Ubuntu has stopped being a key defining philosophy in our lives, and has become yet another marketing campaign for brand South Africa.
We seem to have narrowed our definition of family and limited our responsibilities to fewer and fewer people. These days, black people have second cousins. We stopped referring to townships and the rural areas as home, and started calling them by their names. These days, the people we grew up with, the villages that raised us, have been relegated to the all encompassing label: The masses.
As we lose our connections to our roots, we are becoming “once a year” givers, making a difference “on behalf of Nelson Mandela” and not because it’s our duty. What was once part of our culture of upliftment dies with every new bunch of black graduates. It’s as though we’ve forgotten that these nameless “masses” are a strong part of the reason we have what we have today.
Back in 2007, Eusebias McKaiser questioned the suggestion that “every member of the black middle class accept special moral duties towards other black people solely by virtue of the fact that they both have black skins”. However, this moral duty goes much deeper than skin colour; there are consequences to claiming that being African is more than geography. We cannot wear our Africanness with exclusivity and yet remove all obligations that simply don’t suit us anymore. Even as we redefine what it means to be a modern day African, we must acknowledge that to strip empathy from the definition of being African, would be to suck the term of its very soul.
Our responsibilities towards each other did not evaporate with political emancipation; they’ve always been in our DNA, long before colonisation, slavery, apartheid and the likes.
Don’t get me wrong, black people have every right to do well financially for themselves, and black people still give, but we must accept that for our generation, the western model of giving is simply not sufficient. Ours is a duty, not a calling. We cannot continue to lament the dilution of African culture from mainstream economics and politics, when we are not living those very African values at home. We have an obligation to communities that raised us who need to see us today. We need to go home and tell those who are right behind us that they too can elevate themselves to better economic circumstances. We need to participate in political discourse and lend our education, our minds and our passions to our communities.
We must continue to fund education, whenever we can, for as many people as we can realistically afford to. Gestures as simple as buying a few textbooks, school books or school uniform, don’t cost much, but they’ll make a real difference. We don’t need NGOs to give.
The black middle-class in South Africa potentially has the power to make a real difference in its own extended families and communities. However, narrow definitions of responsibility, will only continue to isolate it from other communities, deeply entrenching the idea that it is the “politically unconscious black middle class”.