In the midst of COVID19 and lockdown in South Africa, there has been much commentary on the class fault lines suggesting a return to ‘normal’ should never be contemplated. In the space of a few weeks, we have seen forced removals under the guise of court sanctioned removals, outcry over the temporary homeless shelter in Strandfontein and the chaos of competition for basic food parcels in both Manenberg and Mitchell’s Plain. Perhaps the best illustration defining this purported class schism within the pandemic are contained in the photo essay published by the Daily Maverick on 8 April 2020. Beyond politics, social activists point to a country reminiscent of the tale of two cities, the privileged and the poor. Irrespective of the validity of differing socioeconomic and health analyses, it is clear that as Vannie Kaap would say that ‘alles is nie reg by die huis nie’.
Cape Town and Johannesburg, both epicenters of the confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, are a microcosm of a broader reality facing middle class South Africa. It is not a popular topic. Certainly not as public-figures amongst these ranks appear to muddy individual liberties with lobbying for the alcohol and tobacco industry. The Woolworths rotisserie chicken debacle entrenched the picture of a class so out of touch with the socioeconomic realities of their country, that they would call the current President, the worst ever in our history. Tone deaf given actions of many political leaders during Apartheid. To seemingly place their right not to cook above a growing majority who have nothing to cook appears grossly inhumane. A perception has emerged that the middle class have finally drawn a line around their suburbs – a line guarded by lawyers, willing to litigate that some interests and livelihoods are ostensibly more valuable than others, some lives more dispensable than others. The truth however is not as simple as social media would have us believe.
In 2019, the Southern African – Towards Inclusive Economic Development (SA-TIED) released a working paper which used in part data from the South African Revenue Service. Key findings included that the wealth of the top 1% was doubling whilst the remainder saw stagnation. Who are the 1%? According to SA-TIED, individuals earning R800,000 per annum. In the same year, the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU) published data suggesting that the top 1% was made up of individuals earning R48,753 per month. This study placed the middle class as being top 10% that earned R7,313 a month. In perspective, the median wage is R3,300. Herein lies the myth of the middle class in South Africa. The work of Dr Jason Musyoka of the University of Pretoria packages the disparate data and suggests that there are few South Africans, of all races, that are both not poor and yet don’t own assets beyond a salaried or regular monthly income. Researchers place this percent at around 20% of the population. In sum, South Africa is not a middle class, but rather a working class society. When seen in this context, the dynamics of the class war seemingly raging in South Africa takes on a new perspective. A perspective of which I think lays squarely at the door of mischievous politicians on all sides of the spectrum.
Our political narrative has been one of poverty versus privilege as if they were binary. The economics without the politicking tell a different story. The 13 May 2019 cover of Time Magazine starkly shows that the middle class is not to be found in Camps Bay or Sandton but in communities in the likes Boksburg, Pretoria Moot and Retreat. Somewhere between the salary percentiles of R3,300 and R48,753 is a sea of over-indebtedness to the extent the people outside the 1% are turning to credit to cover costs such as groceries, transport, education and healthcare. In a 2019 interview, Paul Slot from the Debt Counselling Association indicated that around 10 million had bad debt, with an average of 8 loans each, spending typically 63% of monthly income on debt servicing. These figures give credence to the assertion that above the 6.8 million Stats SA indicated had experienced hunger in 2017, food insecurity is a far wider challenge that encompasses to a degree the working and middle class. Even amongst the limited few who have access to tertiary education, are many who at times struggle to access affordable and nutritious food, which the Centre of Excellence in Food Security describes as ‘a skeleton in universities’ closets’.
There is a good argument to be made, without undermining the impoverished conditions of 60% of our population, that the socioeconomic conditions prior to the novel coronavirus pandemic, were more pervasive than partisan public discourse would have us believe. Within this context, it is understandable that those in the 20% are afraid of what lockdown means for their families’ survival. The reasonable fear is played upon by right-leaning organizations to reinforce neoliberal agendas. This coupled with eloquent communication by provocateurs who do not represent the lived reality of those they claim to represent, creates a false history of this tale of two cities as it were. If the wail for rotisserie chicken was made, it was done by those who would need to pay for it on credit, but more likely an opportunity seized by the 1% to drum up sympathetic support amongst two classes, smaller than the majority, but already long buckling under the weight of economic decline.
The true bearer of the flag of privilege is the 1%.
The remaining 99% are separated by degrees of poverty.
Whilst we don’t know what realities we will face on the other side of COVID19, we must be wary to ignite a class war that has no winners except those with no pun intended, already in the pound seat.