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Half-way between the proletariat and the capitalist class: The problems of the middle class

Yonela Diko is currently the Spokesperson of the African National Congress (ANC) in the Western Cape. Prior to assuming his role in the ANC, he worked in various companies in the private sector. Between 2007-2009 he worked for one of the Leading Retirement Fund Companies, NBC Holdings as an Employee Benefits Consultant. After that he joined the Corporate Strategy and Industrial Development (CSID), an Economic Research Unit housed under the School of Economics at Wits University. He did his BCom degree at the University of Cape Town majoring in Economics.

Over the last few years there has been a concerted effort to question the intelligence of the masses who continue to vote for the ANC government. And the black middle class has jumped to defend themselves, as a special minority that has a special enlightenment about what is going on that the poor masses don’t have.

If there is a group of people who should be worshipping at the altar of the ANC it is the middle class. They are the direct product of ANC policies without whom they would otherwise not exist, my friend – who holds a very senior position in one of the leading investment banks in the country – is telling me now with a grin of satisfaction, sensing the joy such words might be bringing to an ANC champion like myself.

What has turned me against the ANC however is the blatant corruption, Nkandla, oh what was that Nene decision that sent our country into a tailspin, don’t get me started with Pravin, poor service delivery, my friend is telling me now – giving that “on one hand on the other hand sort” of argument which tends to win you fans – and what about Hlaudi, it is these things that have turned me against the very ANC that made me, my friend says now, sensing that he is slowly drifting away from me.

Then he looks me straight in the eye, searching for any reaction, affirmation maybe, or maybe a defence of some sort, no doubt having heard all sorts of defences, satisfied that he is ready to outcompete me on any counter-argument I might present.

There is an old saying in the United States (my turn now to speak). “No one has ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the middle class,” I open my counter-speech. I seem to have said something fresh, something he did not expect, I have his attention. I decide to hammer away.

You know what the middle class reminds me of, it reminds me of that uncle in our rural home towns, half educated, going around the neighbourhood talking about Big Cities and bright lights of Johannesburg, the lifestyle of the rich in Cape Town, New York City (he may have read about it somewhere) until you slow him down and say uncle, is there food in the house, do kids have school uniforms, do you think about moving from the backyard and finding your own house, then uncle turns monochrome, such things are too small, they don’t have the flair of his preferred topics, they don’t say you are educated. Then I drive my point home.

Could it be that like our half educated uncles, the middle class is interested in sounding smart (which today seems to be a combination of “being black and being anti-government”) to those around them than to really appreciate the policies that brought the very middle class into existence and sustains them still.

My friend shows a shade of green, suddenly he remembers the real problems of the black middle class in the corporate world, the daily racial undertones, a white boss asking your junior for details while you are there, occasionally being mistaken for a waiter at black tie events, all the things the middle class should be concerned with on a daily basis – but wait, there is less satisfaction in being obsessed with those realities, they remind you of how not different you are to the rest of the lowly and poor Africans, people you would like to be thought of as smarter and better than.

Of course I have a lot in common with my friend. I went to UCT and my friend went to Wits so we tend to move around the same kinds of people who are almost all professionals of one kind or another.

When we left for university in the early 2000s, the rural parts of our home towns had no electricity and no tap water in the yards. In a space of a few years, we came back home to home lights and running water inside our homes. So every time I listen to some of my friends criticising government over service deliver I have standard questions I ask and suddenly my friends’ argument collapse and drift away.

Where do you stay and what do you do, I always ask my friends. I stay in Sunninghill and I am a medical doctor, one would say. So how is service deliver on your side of the road” No, my friend usually protests, I am talking about the poor, those in Diepsloot and other areas whom the government has forgotten. So you are speaking not for yourself (you are otherwise happy with service in your area) you are speaking on behalf of the poor? Then I reshape my point, preparing to strike.

So where do you meet these poor South Africans you speak of to hear their story. Do you go to Diepsloot? No, my friend protest as if I am talking of a dirty place, how dare me. Put it differently, how many poor people have you met this week? Or, generally, do you know any poor people, give me names, addresses, tell me about these poor people you have met that you are now speaking on behalf of.

Suddenly my friends are alone, they actually live lives that avoid poor people altogether and move in corridors that have no poor persons and this claim of speaking on behalf of the poor is not based on any real encounters; it feels unreal, dishonest, and almost a claim that being black is enough to give you the right to speak on behalf of the poor.

This psychological shortcoming of middle-classness, however, is not new.

Béla Kun, in his paper, Marx and the Middle Class, says “the internal enemy of the proletarian is constituted first and foremost by the middle classes. To reckon with the wishes of the middle classes would mean the halting half-way of the work of the revolution: it would mean an end of the aspirations towards the destruction of capitalism”.

Béla Kun goes on to say that “in the progress of the revolutionary movement, the middle class can display itself only as a reactionary and Utopian factor”. This middle-class stands half-way between the proletariat and the capitalist class, the so-called “toiling intelligentsia”, the lackeys of the capitalist class, all lumped up in that class.

Revolution after revolution reveals the political bankruptcy of the bourgeoisie. Revolution always lays bare the weakness of this class, how dangerous they are to the work of the revolution. During the French revolution, the proletariat was crushed, not by the capitalists, but by this very lower middle class.

The small shopkeeper,” wrote Marx in The Class Struggle in France, “rose up and moved against the barricades, in order to restore the movement from the street into his shop. And when the barricades had been destroyed, when the workmen had been defeated, when the shopkeepers, drunk with victory, turned back to their shops, they found their entry barred by the saviours of property, the official agents of financial capital, who met them with stern demands: ‘The bills have become overdue! Pay up, gentlemen! Pay for your premises, pay four your goods. The poor little shop was ruined, the poor shopkeeper was undone!”

Over the last 100 years of both oppression and freedom for black people one thing has been consistent: the ability of white people to divide black people according to their vanities. White people have always been able to pick one black person and tell him he is smart, he deserves clothes, a warm meal, to live in the house not in the fields, that he is closer to white people than other blacks, and so it has been over the years that with a little education, a house, a family, progress, the greatest insult to that black man is to liken him, his thinking, his blackness, to other black people’s thinking who don’t possess what he possesses.

Today that trick has been reinvented and as black people we are proving no wiser 100 years later. Over the last few years there has been a concerted effort to question the intelligence of the masses who continue to vote for the ANC government. And boy, the black middle class has jumped to defend themselves, as a special minority that has a special enlightenment about what is going on that the poor masses don’t have. They will not be lumped with those other blacks who are voting for the ANC because they depend on government. They are smart, self-sufficient, educated, no different to whites, and will not be lumped with the God-forsaken masses who are at the mercy of the ANC.

When Malcolm X was at the height of his might, crisis-crossing the United States empowering black people to stand up and reclaim both their lives and their place in the franchise of humanity, there were highly educated blacks who did not think he represented them. They were educated, he was not, they sat at the table with white people, he did not, they had white friends and occasionally went for dinner and knew better what black people needed in order to have that seat at the white table.

Malcolm X, speaking at Harvard and after listening to this PhD brother who had been questioning his manner of protest. “Do you know what white folk call a brother like yourself?” Malcolm asked. I believe I don’t, answered the PhD brother. “A nigger,” responded X mockingly. You cannot out-educate yourself out of your race, you cannot be parachuted by education into whiteness. You will forever be black and you might as well be comfortable.

We cannot continue to fall for the same tricks.

The achievements of the ANC are real and measurable. These achievement can be seen in the six-million people who had no jobs in 1994 but have jobs today, the running water in our homes, electricity for our lights, sanitation with dignity, upward mobility that has created the black middle class that today contributes over R400-billion to the fiscus and yes, even the black upper class of millionaires and billionaires. The last 22 years have been the greater miracle known to men.

We need to move up and down the social spectrum with great ease and not hold on to this tentative space of middle-classness. DM

Yonela Diko is a Spokesperson of the ANC in the Western Cape


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