SA's black middle class treading on fragile territory


The rise of the black middle class in South Africa may be facing a stunt in growth due to the current depressed economic environment.

This is according to a new report released by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) that relied on indicators such as household spending levels, to workplace seniority, educational levels, medical insurance cover, internet usage, property ownership, banking patterns, and appliance ownership.

The report clarified that due to varied definitions, at most two out of ten South Africans could lay claim to a middle class standard of living, however the IRR said only one out of ten South Africans were actually living at a middle class standard.


“Despite the small size of this middle class there has been considerable growth in the black middle class which has approached the size of the white middle class, “said the report.

However, this comes with a cautionary clause that as the first generation middle class — the black middle class was very vulnerable to losing their status as a result of developments such as a sharp economic downturn or a period of rapidly rising interest rates.

Dr Frans Cronje, IRR’s CEO, said that it was important that every child born in South Africa should realistically and feasibly be able to aspire to the middle class standard of living. This ought to be the single most important priority for the South African government, he said.

“That a child might aspire to a middle class standard of living should be seen as moral as well as a social, economic, and political imperative. There is no doubt that under the government’s current policy framework this imperative is not being met,” Cronje emphasised.

IRR cited data from Statistics South Africa that having a bonded property is an important middle class measure as it suggests a steady source of income, such as a white collar job and access to the formal financial services sector. On this measure, 8.5 per cent of all households were owned but not fully paid off in 2014.

Gabriel Mckay, head researcher for the report, said, “Only a policy reform process delivering much higher GDP growth rates can secure significant future middle class expansion.”