While we continue to be a very unequal society, South Africa has made considerable progress in growing our middle class. This is contrary to trends in established societies such as the United States where the middle class has been growing poorer despite a degree of economic recovery. The middle class is a critical component of any economy. A large, stable middle class buys the goods and services that keep economies buoyant and fuel growth.
The legacy of our racially divided past means that mainly black South Africans are forced to play catch-up. Much has been written about this in terms of sport, jobs and skills, but the extent to which they are also trying to catch up as consumers is also relevant. This has produced a comparatively large and growing first-generation middle class (people who classify themselves as middle class and whose parents were working class), comprising 4.8 million people of whom 76% are black.
Where the white middle class has developed over several generations, six out of 10 black South Africans are the first generation to achieve this status. This means those in the established middle class (their predominantly non-black neighbours and those in similar positions at work) have been there a lot longer and have accumulated their wealth and skills over the years. As a result, the established middle class tend to have significantly lower levels of debt and are a lot less vulnerable if they lose their jobs or if the petrol price rises.
For the first-generation middle class, the distance between where they are now and where they’ve come from is very small. It is too easy to fail and get pulled back. Two-thirds say that they are paying for things they didn’t pay for previously (like education and medical care) and 38% say they often don’t have money to pay their bills. They have huge monthly demands on their incomes (bonds, car repayments, fuel and electricity, rates and services, school fees and transport), leaving less and less for consumer goods and food.
Despite this, those in the first-generation middle class remain optimistic. The optimism that enabled them to make the leap into the middle class is clearly visible from their belief (84%) that, “It is possible to start out poor in this country, work hard and become rich”. They tend to be brand and status conscious, but not excessively so. They feel empowered and in control of their lives. They find it exciting to live in a time of so much change, with 75% saying that, “I am much more confident in my ability to use technology such as that on my cellphone or computer.”
Most feel that their standard of living is better than that of their parents, even though only 48% believe that the same will apply to their own children. Just over half say that they have more spending money than previously, with almost six out of 10 saying that their families are doing better financially and managing to save some money.
As many as 80% are cautious of getting into debt and prefer to save for the things they want and 90% are aware of the need to save and invest for the future. Even though most believe that the most qualified person should get a job or a position in a sports team, almost three-quarters felt that they had benefited from affirmative action that “needs to continue for several years more”.
The findings presented above are from futurefact 2013, which is based on a probability sample of 3 025 adults aged 15 years and over, living in communities of more than 500 people throughout South Africa representing 21.6 million adults.
This story was first published in the March 2014 issue of The Media magazine.
IMAGE: Kaya FM Afropolitan / Veuve Cliquot polo
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