Africa’s Middle Class ‘phenomenon’: are we asking the right questions?

This post originally appeared as part of the Democracy in Africa‘s “New Year, New Questions series on 6 January 2015. We reproduce it here with permission. Sara cropped 2

We’ve read and heard a lot about Africa’s new middle class in 2014. There has been a lot of focus on the size, growth and consumption patterns of this group, but few questions asked about where it has come from. An assumption has been made that economic growth is spurring the emergence of the middle class, and that middle class growth will itself lead to more growth for African economies through increased consumer power.

But if we’re interested in the political implications of this shift, we need to look at more than consumption. We need to look at income rather than expenditure. There is a reason that until now the middle class has proved elusive in Africa – and that is because colonial states were explicitly designed not to produce them. Instead, ‘middle-men’ groups were encouraged to emigrate and fill this economic niche. Lebanese, Greek and Asian communities became grocers, traders and factory-owners — filling the niche that had produced the ‘burghers’ of Europe, who famously demanded representation in return for taxation. The early political class in Africa, by contrast, was predominantly comprised of teachers, clergymen and civil servants and hence lacked autonomy from the state, whether colonial or post-colonial. This so-called ‘petty bourgeoisie’ was neither petty, nor bourgeois, as the political elite used its nous to ‘straddle’ the economic and political divide. The middle-men remained trapped in an ambiguous position and held neither citizenship nor voting rights, which kept them reliant on the state for their livelihoods and residence permits.

The ‘gatekeeper state’ thus reinvented and reproduced itself in the post-colonial period, and in doing so has given zero-sum politics free reign. Post-election violence, ethnic rivalry, political competition and corruption all find their roots in the ‘winner-takes-all’ politics that this system encourages. Where the state – or informal political connections – remains the source of licenses, access to import-export opportunities, and contracts, then the business-people will line up behind their candidates. Likewise, the political elites rely on their connections to local notables, all with their own ‘projects’. The gatekeeper state, and the interconnected nature of personal, party, business and government interests ensures that the fight to stay in power is intense and all-consuming.

One important question then, is the extent to which patterns of economic growth, especially the entry of new resource flows onto the continent, has changed the ability of state elites to gate-keep. Are business-people and emergent bourgeois able to demarcate their own paths and maintain their autonomy? Do they even seek to do so? And if they do, is this likely to shift the nexus of power away from the state? That is, does the growth of a consumer-driven middle class contain within itself the potential to transform not just how business is done, but also how politics is done?

Alternatively, has the emergence of multi-nationals, hedge-funds, BRICS, and others as economic heavy-hitters simply reinforced the ability of political elites to maintain their stranglehold on extraversion? In this scenario, middle class growth may have implications for markets, but not for politics as we know it.

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