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Even though we continue to be a very unequal society, South Africa has made considerable progress up to now in growing our middle class. This is contrary to trends in established societies like America where the middle class has been growing poorer and sliding backwards despite a degree of economic recovery. The middle class is a critical component of any economy. A large, stable middle class buys the goods and services that keep economies buoyant and fuel growth.

SA's burgeoning middle class

But, our racially divided past has left behind a legacy where mainly black South Africans are forced to play catch-up. Much has been written about this in terms of sport, jobs and skills but the extent to which they are also trying to catch up as consumers and in terms of lifestyle is just as relevant. This has produced a comparatively large and growing first generation middle class (people who classify themselves as middle class and whose parents were working class) comprising  4,8-million people of whom 76% or 3,6-million are black.  

The rise of the first generation middle class

Where the white middle class has developed over several generations, six out of ten black South Africans are the first generation to achieve this status. In real terms this means that those in the established middle-class (their predominantly non-black neighbours and those in similar positions at work) have been there a lot longer and have accumulated their wealth, capital, possessions and skills over the years. As a result the established middle class tend to have significantly lower levels of debt and are a lot less vulnerable if they lose their jobs or face interest rate hikes, petrol price rises or even e-toll fees!  

For those who are first generation middle class the distance between where they are now and where they’ve come from is very narrow. It is too easy to fail and get swallowed back. Two thirds say that they are paying for things they didn’t pay for previously (like education and medical care) and 38% that they often don’t have money to pay their accounts and bills. They have huge demands on their incomes: bonds, car repayments, fuel and electricity, rates and services, school fees, transport which have to be met each month leaving less and less for buying consumer goods and even food. 

Despite this, those in the first generation middle class remain positive and optimistic. The optimism that enabled them to make the leap into the middle class is clearly visible from their belief (84%) that: “It is possible to start out poor in this country, work hard and become rich”.  In consumer terms they tend to be brand and status conscious but not excessively so. They feel that they have power and control over their lives and that they can achieve whatever they set out to do. They find it exciting to live in a time of so much change with 75% saying that: “I am much more confident in my ability to use technology such as that on my cellphone or computer”. Most feel that their standard of living is better than that of their parents even though only 48% believe that the same will apply to their own children. Just over half say that they have more spending money than previously with almost six out of ten saying that their families are doing better financially and managing to save some money. 80% say they are cautious about getting into debt and prefer to save for the things they want and 90% are aware of the need to save and invest for the future. Even though most believe that the most qualified person should get a job or a position in a sports team almost three-quarters felt that they had benefited from affirmative action which “needs to continue for several years more”.

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.

If you would like to find out more about futurefact and its extensive attitudinal databases please contact Jos Kuper 082 904 9939 or check out www.futurefact.co.za

Published in The Media, February 2014