Maverick Citizen


An open letter to the South African middle class — introspect and then act to make positive change


Axolile Notywala is a social justice activist in the Western Cape and the former general secretary of the Social Justice Coalition (SJC). He is now the Western Cape convenor of Rise Mzansi.

What use is your social class status and social capital if all you do is shout on social media while our country is in crisis? This question might sound like an insult. It is not. It is a genuine question that has been on my mind for some time now, more so over the past six months. It is also an invitation to middle-class South Africa to introspect.

Millions of South Africans live in poverty and go to bed hungry. Millions of South Africans, particularly young people, fall into crime and drug and alcohol abuse due to a lack of jobs and opportunities. South Africa has a crisis of political leadership. We are the most unequal country in the world, with the highest rates of unemployment among young people. South Africa ranks in the top 10 list of countries with the highest suicide rates in the world

In terms of crime, South Africa ranks at number seven out of 193 countries in the world, according to the Global Organized Crime Index 2023. These are all political, economic and social problems that cannot be addressed via hashtags and social media.

In May 2020, the world witnessed the tragic and brutal killing of George Floyd by the police in the United States. Millions of people around the world participated in protests and supported the #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) movement, with a lot of mobilisation through social media. We witnessed the power of social media political mobilisation in response to this amid a global pandemic. This, of course, does not discount the organising that had already been happening way before in the US by many organisations and movements against police killings and racism. The BLM movement was more than a social media outcry, it went on to translate into action.

Here at home, Collins Khosa and Nathaniel Julies were killed by the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) and the South African Police Service (SAPS)  in 2020. The responses were different to those in the US. So, I understand the power of social media towards change, but I also understand its limitations.

Building a political alternative 

Six months ago, I made the conscious decision to officially begin a journey of organising and building a political alternative in South Africa: Rise Mzansi, with a collective group of people from diverse backgrounds. Rise Mzansi was officially launched on 19 April 2023 as a political movement that will contest the elections in 2024. 

Over the past six months, I have organised with many others across the country, and I have been in many communities. I have engaged, interacted and listened to thousands of people in community meetings and events we organised in the Western Cape. 

The overall majority of people I have engaged with have been open to and welcoming of a new politics and political approach. These are predominantly working-class South Africans in marginalised and neglected communities I have worked with for the past 15 years. 

Of course, people are tired of failing politics and politicians. People are tired of the politics of promises with no results; and voting for corrupt and uncaring politicians. They are tired of the same old. 

But thousands of South Africans that I have engaged with, who are tired of being tired, have decided to join our movement-building journey and to stand up and volunteer within their communities through community actions while also being in solidarity with others in marginalised communities.

I have also engaged with and followed the comments and responses of middle-class South Africans in response to Rise Mzansi — “A party started by the middle class and the elite, a party of the middle class and ‘clever blacks’”, many have opined.

The middle-class questions or critiques have ironically come from the middle class. Why this point keeps coming up, I have struggled to understand.

I have struggled to understand this, because which political party in the history of South African politics was ever started by the working class? Not the ANC, not the DA, not the EFF, not the PAC, or ActionSA. The social class and social capital of the people who started these parties are what enabled them to do so.

I have spent the past 15 years of my life in the civil-society sector. An imperfect sector (a needed reflection for another day), but one that has been central in holding our country together and providing some much-needed hope to South Africans who have lost hope in the party political system and in our government. A sector I am proud to still be part of and that has shaped my own politics. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Axolile Notywala: Moving on from the Social Justice Coalition to new pastures of fellowship and study  

But, even with the civil society sector, none of the organisations I have worked for was started by the working class. 

Now, I ask again: what use is your social class status and social capital? 

Use your class and skills for good

The 2024 elections are a crucial moment for us as South Africans to change the trajectory of our country. We all have a role to play in contributing to the change that is required in our politics. We must all make sure that we come out to vote.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a call to middle-class South Africans to join a new political party or movement or just a call to vote next year. Political parties are important in our democracy, but they are not the be-all and end-all of our constitutional and participatory democracy towards positive change in our country.

There is a lot more we can do.

What this is, is a call to you, the South African middle class, to introspect on the use of your social class status, privileges and social capital beyond just hashtags.

Use your social class and social capital to be in solidarity with and assist a community or community organisation with your professional skills. 

Run a workshop or training for young people and help them get skills and opportunities. Support and donate to a community kitchen to help feed many families who go to bed hungry. Support up-and-coming artists with resources. Sponsor soccer boots to a talented young person, sponsor sports equipment for a team in a township or rural area that doesn’t have the resources, to help keep young people out of crime and drug and alcohol abuse. I can go on and on. 

Do something with what you have — for the South Africa we deserve. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Robert Pegg says:

    A noble cause, but charity begins at home. Many middle class families are supporting someone in their family who cannot find a job, or who needs help in starting a business. Many middle class families are struggling to pay school fees and tertiary education fees. Families are middle class because they have put in the time, money and effort to better their families lives. There is nothing left to give in most middle class families.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    I agree with the previous commenter about it being a noble concept, but also that the “be a nice guy and do everything for everyone” message is pushed at the average person, while in parallel that same average person is being forced to watch the supposed leaders of our country lie and steal and break all the good in our country – and there actually was a LOT of it that could have been used to do exactly the outcome you are now seeking.

    Like a worker bee, my job is to work. In doing so I generate income for myself and others. I also generate revenue for the state, to be used to achieve EXACTLY what you desire.

    Work is full time, and it is tiring, which is why worker bees do one thing only, to great benefit to the existence of the hive as a whole

    It is time for everyone in our country to take responsibility for their own roles, recognising the importance of each role to the economy, and for the legal system to deal with those who don’t.

    Speaking as the worker bee I am, while I respect your position and aims, I simply do not have the capacity or ability to play all the roles in the hive.

  • Steve Davidson says:

    “Millions of South Africans live in poverty and go to bed hungry.”

    And the ‘middle class’ must fix it?! Nope, they work their backsides off and pay taxes already. The problem in SA is crooked incompetent politicians.

  • Libby De Villiers says:

    Sure, something must be done, but you’re barking up the wrong tree.

    The middle class is, at this point, the glue keeping this country together. This is the class that educates their children, works for their money, pays for their own medical needs and security, saves to be independent in their old age and pays taxes. They create employment, pay salaries and support charities with time and money.
    They only have so much. To do all of this they have to work and have time to bring up their children with decent values.
    Have you given any thought to where the money the government steals and squanders comes from? No, sir, the middle and upper middle class is doing their best.
    The problem is the ANC government. They are to blame for every hungry child, every rape and murder, every pit toilet and uneducated hopeless, futureless child, every run down hospital and school, every pot hole, every homeless person in this country and every frustration driven riot.
    The government and the people who vote for them have the blood on their hands and stand to blame for the mess we’re in.

  • Louise Louise says:

    Why just look at the “middle-class”? The problems in society stem from the breakdown of the family unit, whether it is the poorer classes or the middle-class. Broken families equals a broken society. Both men and women need to honour their vows to their spouses and to work hard to take care of their children and to bring them up as honest and worthwhile citizens. Common law – cause no loss, harm or injury to anyone. If people could do this, we would be able to turn society around. Giving money/donations to poorer people, or setting up charities are noble, but they don’t get to the root cause of the breakdown of society. Oh, and one other thing! Make the government as irrelevant as you can – stop thinking that the government will do anything positive for you or society, they won’t. Become independent, create a strong community. Elect honest people for your community and councils/municipalities. Be strong, be honest, be brave.

  • Change is good sa says:

    Many citizens already do many amazing things in this country. We need to celebrate that. I want to see the results of all those amazing things that people do, but the media seldom speak of this. We have educated our domestic employees children to stop generational poverty. They have become the middle classes and hopefully in turn they will do something for someone else that makes a difference. I celebrate your thoughts, but do not think for one moment that this is not already happening. Every disaster we have had recently, has shown SA citizens to be really generous to others. We need to celebrate and be proud of what we do already.

  • Jane Quin says:

    Thanks for this open letter, Axolile. I appreciate you talking in terms of social class and asking us to self-reflect. And thanks for picking up a political baton for the country.

    I think charitable donation certainly has a role in an unequal society. But I also agree that the ‘financial giving’ in the context of a draining state can make it feel like trying to stop a whirlpool with sticking plaster. However, sharing social capital resources is different. Sharing is about giving and receiving. And social capital has many forms.

    I agree that the middle classes likely have more financial resources to offer than the working classes. But not necessarily more consciousness of how to use it for constructive community care and collaboration.

    In the context of domination by kleptocratic and anti-democratic greedy political rulers, leaders and administrators, I think the role of the rest of us is in [re]learning and practicing the opposite: sharing and caring – of sociopolitical power and means of living.

    So I agree with you. We must all do something, with whatever we have. As the perceptive meme currently circulating says: ‘what can I do, I am only one person?’… say 7 billion people….

    Everyone can contribute their mite. Picture that guiding star of what a better world looks likes to you, and take one step at a time toward it. Your path will come into confluence with others you can mutually share with. We all some power to build our collective power with.

    • f v says:

      I agree with this. If one considers the various foundations and programmes that exist already, there must be somewhere that people can feel that they can use their social capital to good effect.

  • Paul Fanner says:

    I get the impression that he is referring to the erstwhile white middle class. I have only a small sample size to go on, i.e. the offspring my friends and acquaintances, but based on that small sample, more than half of them don’t live here anymore, but in Australia, Britain, Canada, even in Hungary and Finland. And, from an image that lives in my memory, of the stands at Lords during a Proteas game there a while back, the young Black middle class doesn’t live here anymore either. The stands were full of them. That’s not much evidence, agreed, but I think he’s living in the past

    • Kanu Sukha says:

      Unfortunately … your ‘impression’ is misguided …and reflects adversely on the ‘poor education’ you have had/got. Your comments reflect your personal prejudices and call to hasty judgements. BUT … you are entitled to your opinions of course !

  • Robin Smaill says:

    Axolile Notywala is certainly right, something needs to change but not necessarily how he suggests. The problem is in the townships, the behaviour in the townships. Money or handouts don’t change behaviour and they never will. It is the behaviour that causes the problems including a lack of money and that must change from inside. It is not that middle-class people can’t help but the numbers involved means that most of the work to change behaviour must come from within. The human brain is central to success in life and that is formed and shaped early in life by parental behaviour. Most township parents have limited knowledge of how detrimental behaviour influences their children. Also, most township parents are traumatized for a variety of reasons and traumatized people are likely to behave irrationally.
    Communities can start a program educating parents how to behave and relate to their children. Parents need community support. Secondly, older community members need to support parents who are traumatized. Provide a listening ear, encourage them to talk, ask them about their emotions, talk to them about their stress and be there when they have a need. Communities must do what they have been doing for thousands of years; help each other.
    History has not been kind to many families but they need to invigorate a culture of caring for each other and taking responsibility for the welfare of others. The future is in the hands of our children.

  • Ingrid Kemp says:

    Well said, Axolile.

  • Anthony Kearley says:

    There are so many poor in SA and comparitively so few of means, that it becomes a practical impossibility for us to help the poor in any meaningfull way, unless the poor meet us halfway by helping themselves… and this is how they could do so: What good is the trade union movement if you cannot obtain any job? What good is the promise of free services for all, when there are simply not enough working taxpayers to support it? In short, what good is a vote if you only use it to vote for more poverty? You see, helping the poor in any broad manner requires a lot of economic growth and making economic growth in SA is currently like walking upwards on an escalator that is going downwards. It is time to reset the system, time to set aside ideology in favour of bread and butter. The poor can meet us halfway by voting for prosperity, voting for a party that espouses Capitalism as a core principle, not the slow economic death of Socialism or the quick economic death of Communism. It will be a long, slow grind upwards for the poor, but at least it will be upwards.

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