futurefact finds's picture

Two neighbours in the same middle-class suburb: one family black, the other white. A recent article by Leon Schreiber carried by Politicsweb suggests that even though these families would have a great deal in common in terms of lifestyle, interests and needs: “the odds are that racialised thinking would convince both families that they actually have very little in common. A black family might assume that the whites have more in common with rich white industrialists living on an exclusive estate, while the white family might assume that the blacks have more in common with impoverished black people living in a township on the outskirts of town”.

futurefact in 2013 finds something quite different!

We explored the similarities and differences between black and white South Africans who self- classify themselves as middle-class or upper-middle class. We found that they share a lot more than neighbourhoods and lifestyle. Crucially for the transformation of our society, they share many attitudes, beliefs and values – starting with a shared love for South Africa and pride in our achievements.

More than 85% of middle-class South Africans are proud to be South African and believe that the country is as capable of achieving greatness as any country on earth. 95% said that when our sports teams win, the nation as a whole has more pride in itself. While they are aware that there are problems here, over 80% have no desire to leave South Africa.

Regardless of race, these middle-class South Africans are not sitting-back waiting for things to happen. They are optimistic people who believe that it is “possible to start out poor in this country, work hard and become rich.” They also realise that they won’t be successful unless they work at it and over 90% say: “I am a person who can achieve whatever I set out to achieve provided I put effort into it”. Around 90% are aware of the need to save money and invest for the future and are prepared to make sacrifices now for the future well-being of themselves and their families. They say that they are very cautious about getting into debt and rather save money before they buy the things they want (79% black and 84% white).

Protest – don’t be too sure that the middle-classes won’t take to the streets as they have done Greece, Turkey, Brazil, Egypt …. So far most protest in South Africa has originated among the working classes but just over 90% of middle-class South Africans feel that South African citizens should stand up for what they believe in and not wait for others to take action. It may be just a matter of time before the South African middle-classes find an issue that makes them take to the streets – for example three quarters of them believe that E-Tolls are a “bad Idea” and over 80% believe the government only takes action when there are strikes or civil action. We have already seen activism on just this issue.

On the thorny issue of race 90% say: “I am comfortable with people of the same class/ status/ education regardless of their race” and that “Black and white people in South Africa need each other to survive and prosper”. Even though middle-class black South Africans are much more in favour of affirmative action than their white counterparts they share the view that South African sports teams should be selected ONLY on merit and ability, not by racial quotas (85% black and 93% white) and that the best person should be given the job regardless of race or gender (85% black and 91% white). They like to frequent places where “people of all races go” (84% and 79%) and most have friends from other racial groups (72% and 81%). Almost 90% share the belief that “it is never OK to use words that other races find offensive”.

They also share similar concerns about crime and corruption: 85% believe that “Government or state officials found guilty of corruption or crime should never be allowed to hold office again”. As for the Protection of Information Bill, most believe that “It is the duty of the media to expose corruption among politicians and business people (80% black and 87% white). Compared to a year ago they say they are “much more likely to openly criticise the government” (75% and 78%) and that they are: “pessimistic about the future of the country because of the lack of accountability in government” (74% and 80%).

A key difference arises when it comes to political affiliation. Unlike their black counterparts, the white middle class have little confidence in President Zuma and are not supporters of the ANC. They are less confident about SA’s future prospects than they were in 1994 and are less likely to feel their quality of life in SA is much better than it would be elsewhere (55% white as opposed 79% black). BUT, at the same time, more than three-quarters feel that “Only a few people have really benefited from black economic empowerment”.

Another important difference lies in their reliance on brands and a belief that “It is important to buy the right brands to create the right impression” (73% black vs 42% white). For many in the black middle class, this is the first generation to have achieve this status and unsurprisingly the, possessions and brands are important signals that they have arrived. In her article Shooting up the ladder in City Press Voices (Sunday 30 September), Joonji Mdyogolo (herself first generation middle class) writes: “My parents would claim working class status, but I believe that they provided us with middle class opportunities – mainly by investing heavily in the education of their children”.

Which brings up another important difference between the white and black middle class. Where white children are able to get financial and other assistance from their established middle class parents, with first generation middle-class it is more likely to be the other way round: futurefact finds that 72% of those in black middle class compared with 54% of whites said: I/we have to help support relatives/other family members. Mdyogolo writes of family members who: “are buying a house for her mother and sending a cousin to school”.

Nonetheless, looking at the overall picture, futurefact finds far more similarities than differences between South Africa’s white and black middle classes. When and if the two realise the potency of this and start to work together, the government could find itself facing much tougher challenges and demands.

futurefact has been surveying the attitudes and beliefs of South Africans since 1998.  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.