Expert in Africa Studies debunks African middle class myth

Prof. Heidi Hudson, Director of the Centre for Africa Studies (CAS), Joe Besigye from the Institute of Reconciliation and Social Justice, and Prof. Henning Melber, Extraordinary Professor at the CAS and guest lecturer for the day. PHOTO: VALENTINO NDABA

Until recently, think tanks from North America, the African Development Bank, United Nations Development Plan, and global economists have defined the African middle class based purely on monetary arithmetic. One of the claims made in the past is that anyone with a consumption power of $2 per day constitutes the middle class. Following this, if poverty is defined as monetary income below $1.5 a day, it means that it takes just half a dollar to reach the threshold considered as African middle class.
Prof. Henning Melber highlighted the disparities in the notion of a growing African middle class in a guest lecture titled “A critical anatomy of the African middle class(es)”, hosted by the Centre for Africa Studies (CAS) at the University of the Free State on 4 May 2016. He is an Extraordinary Professor at the centre, as well as Senior Advisor and Director Emeritus of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation in Sweden.
Prof. Melber argued that it is misleading to consider only income when identifying the middle class. In his opinion, such views were advanced by promoters of the global neo-liberal project. “My suspicion is that those who promote the middle-class discourse in that way, based on such a low threshold, were desperate to look for the success story that testifies to Africa rising.”
Another pitfall of such a middle-class analysis is its historical contextualisation. This economically-reduced notion of the class is a sheer distortion. Prof. Melber advised analysts to take cognisance of factors such as consumption patterns, lifestyle, and political affiliation, among others.
In his second lecture for the day, Prof. Melber dealt with the topic of “Namibia since independence: the limits to liberation”, painting the historical backdrop against which the country’s current government is consolidating its political hegemony. He highlighted examples of the limited transformation that have been achieved since Namibia’s independence in 1990.