The African Middle Class in South Africa 1910-1994

18 August 2014
Publication Type: Working Paper

Alan Cobley (1990: 3) has argued that no sustained interest was taken in the subject of class in South Africa until the arrival of a generation of radical historians in the 1970s, and then the focus of concern was largely with the origins and development of a black working class in whose revolutionary potential the future was, by many, deemed to lie. In contrast, Jeremy Seekings (2009) has proposed that class was long a concern, if not necessarily the central one, of liberal scholars from the 1940s. Nonetheless, even though it is true that an emergent black middle class attracted considerable interest from liberal historians, anthropologists and social observers, it is fair to say that it was dealt with spasmodically, and then very often largely as a subordinated appendage of the black proletariat. Arguably, therefore, it is only now that the history of the African middle class, notably as it participated in and shaped the African National Congress (ANC), is beginning to receive its due. In part, this is because the lot of the middle class is often deemed in ‘struggle history’ to have been unheroic: indeed in some tellings, the only way for the bourgeoisie to contribute to liberation was by subjecting itself to the leadership of the working class! Yet even while, today, there is a growing interest in the multi-faceted nature of the struggle against apartheid, there has been a failure to trace the holistic evolution of the black middle class. In what follows I provide an overview of the development of the specifically ‘African’ segment of the ‘black middle class’ in the pre-democratic era, even while recognizing that this places severe limitations upon how we portray past struggles against racial oppression.

Series title: Working paper 451
1 August 2014