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Roger Southall reviews The Rise of Africa’s Middle Classes: Myths, Realities and Critical Engagements

Roger Southall, based at the Department of Sociology, University of the Witwatersrand, and a Research Associate in Political Studies at the University of Cape Town, recently reviewed The Rise of Africa’s Middle Classes: Myths, Realities and Critical Engagements edited by Henning Melber, for Pambazuka News.

An extract from Southall’s review reads:

Institutions such as the World Bank and African Development Bank regularly propagandise that as a product of ‘Africa Rising’, the African middle class is also rising. Albeit spread unevenly across different countries, this new version African middle class is said to be becoming more prominent, more visible and more influential with the spread of market capitalism. In turn, Africanist scholarship has built upon this narrative, placing heavy emphasis upon such key issues as definition, consumption and the fragility of the ‘new’ middle classes across the continent. This book, the latest such offering amidst a burgeoning literature, confirms this trend, and is set to become a standard work of reference.

It would seem from the title of the book that the African middle class is unambiguously ‘rising’, yet that assertion is questioned by at least three of the authors. Henning Melber, in both his introduction and conclusion, takes strong issue with the rather curious income or expenditure definitions of middle class-ness adopted by the global institutions, some of which label Africans living just above the poverty line as ‘middle class’. He queries whether it is growing as fast as is usually implied, suggests that it may have declined in size since the global crisis in 2008, and wonders whether it is meaningful to refer to it as ‘middle class’. Even so, he concludes that the current engagements with ‘the phenomenon called the African middle classes(es) is anything but obsolete’ as ‘they signify modified social relations in African societies which deserve attention’ (p9). That rather lukewarm endorsement must be taken as the justification for the collection, even if the editor might usefully have impressed upon the publishers the need for a question mark in the book’s title.

The outstanding chapter in the book is offered by Carola Lentz (Ch. 1) who provides a superb overview of the literature, historical and contemporary, dealing with those groups in African societies today customarily referred to as ‘middle class’. She too bewails the poverty of definitions provided by the global institutions. However, she moves beyond that to explore the rich troves of literature dealing with the African middle classes while urging the necessity of relating this to the vast body of work dealing with middle class formation in Europe, America and the global South.

Continue reading the review here.

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