Best of SACSIS: South Africa's Real Ticking Time Bomb - The Black Middle Class

By Steven Friedman · 3 Jun 2014

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Picture: Black Entrepreneur Magazine
Picture: Black Entrepreneur Magazine

OUR real ‘ticking time bomb’ may be not poverty, but what it always has been – race. Our angriest people may not be those forced to survive on much less than they need, but the black middle class.

Poverty is our biggest problem: it affects most people and imposes huge economic and social costs. But the frequently heard claim that poor people are about to rise up and destroy the economy ignores reality: poverty usually forces people to be more pragmatic because more is at stake. The poor are not yet organised enough and still too isolated from economic power to change society.

Middle class people, by contrast, can organise and make themselves heard. And, if middle class people are black, they may be very angry.

The point was illustrated during a recent radio debate whose audience was overwhelmingly black and middle class. Callers angrily insisted that they were considering voting for the EFF in Gauteng because the ANC was reportedly considering appointing a white person as the province’s premier. Why was that a problem? The callers were lawyers, managers or business people: all complained of workplace experiences with whites who, in their view, failed to take them seriously or recognise their dignity.

One radio discussion does not make a trend. But the fact that 400 000 voters did choose the EFF in Gauteng suggests that there were many more angry black professionals in the province than those who called in to the radio station. What evidence we have suggests that the ANC lost ground in Gauteng primarily because the black middle class deserted it – and that an important reason for the shift was a sense that, two decades into democracy, black professionals and business people may live vastly better than previous generations, but face the same racial attitudes and sense of exclusion, even if the process is now subtler.

This anger upsets two common beliefs. First, that entry into the middle class is likely to make black people happier with the market economy and that racial contact in the workplace is sure to make people get on better with each other.

This ignores two realities. One is that race still matters here and that it matters most to black people in business and the professions because it is they who are at the sharp end of the racial interface.

Some unemployed black people don’t have any contact with whites at all – a study in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, found that up to a third of residents spoke no English or Afrikaans, which surely means that they have little or no contact with whites: for them, white attitudes are an abstract problem. Black blue collar workers may experience workplace racism but the effects are reduced by a tendency among many large companies to hire black managers who deal with black workers. Professionals, on the other hand, spend most of their time in direct contact with white people.

The other reality is that many black professionals experience racial mixing as a process not of affirmation but of constant belittling. And so the result is not more tolerance and the happy racial mixing featured in beer ads but anger at what is seen as the persistence of the white attitudes which underpinned apartheid.

Racial pecking orders in business and the professions have not died – that much is obvious to anyone who spends time engaging with businesses. Not only are the upper echelons of companies still mainly white. but the way people engage with each other has hardly shifted. There are obvious exceptions but, at many engagements with companies, it is the white people who speak during the formal sessions and the black people who wait until the meeting is over to approach an invited speaker, not only to ask questions but, at times, to point out that the attitudes which black managers express to their white colleagues are not necessarily those they really hold.

None of this should be all that surprising. Apartheid was underpinned by attitudes far too deeply held to disappear in two decades – the assumption that only whites are competent to perform complicated tasks dies hard.  This affects our national debate: much of the stress on ‘leaving the markets alone’ is code for freeing the white people who run the private economy from the control of black people who run the government. Inevitably, it affects attitudes in the workplace too.

This past may also have ensured that black people enter the middle class with little confidence and little trust. And so it would be naïve to expect the beer ads to describe the real world.

How much of this is white bigotry and how much a sense by black people that they have been thrust into a world shaped by others where they are given little help to enable them to feel at home is not clear - it is surely both. But what is clear is that the cutting edge of racial mistrust is not the streets of townships or shack settlements but the air-conditioned offices of our major cities.

The angry black middle class will have limited influence on future elections - even if they all desert the ANC, their numbers are likely to remain too small for too long to make them a major power at the ballot box. But the way race plays out in business and the professions is a huge problem for the society. It places a permanent limit on developing talent, makes open conversation about our economic and political priorities far more difficult and distorts our debate because racial anger in the middle class is often confused with rebellion by workers and the poor. And it remains a potential threat to democracy because it makes tolerance and mutual respect more difficult.

In the early 1990s, racial attitudes in the middle class were a major issue for a society negotiating a new political order. When democracy was achieved, the social power holders - business, the professions, academics, the media - seemed to decide that race was a problem no longer because everyone had the vote and formal rights. And so racial tensions which should have been addressed over the past two decades were ignored.

The anger confirms that this was a mistake. The problem has not disappeared and, if it is not addressed now, we may pay a rising price for ignoring our deepest divide.

Friedman is the Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg.

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Barry Saayman
3 Jun

Workplace Racism Part 1

>>"Black blue collar workers may experience workplace racism but the effects are reduced by a tendency among many large companies to hire black managers who deal with black workers."

This is apartheid all over again - de jure racial segregation replaced with de facto racial segregation. What happened to non-racialism in the workplace?

>> "Professionals, on the other hand, spend most of their time in direct contact with white people."

And they are the unhappiest and angriest people thinkable - and what about unhappy or angry whites that feel threatened in the workplace due to "racial mistrust" or others that "may experience workplace racism"? If and when whites complain they are reflexively dismissed by all and sundry as racists because it is still politically incorrect to complain about black on white abuse of power/tyranny of the majority.

>>"Not only are the upper echelons of companies still mainly white. but the way people engage with each other has hardly shifted."

Indigenisation / Africanisation of the economy cannot be stopped - nobody is immune against employment equity and the 20,000 plus white nepotists in charge of the economy and certain academics are seen to obscenely cling to the perks of office and that gives the ANC the right to keep on discriminating against ordinary white workers.

"The climate changed so much that some commentators cavalierly dismissed the NP government's call for minority rights as an obscene attempt to cling to the perks of office. At work was what Bernard Crick in a different context called a combination of "noble hopes and fatuous credulit". Hermann Giliomee

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Savi
5 Jun

Racism in the Workplace Part 1

You are alluding to some form of debilitating reverse racism against whites, this is premature if you take an honest look at the state of play in this country. Perhaps what you need to reflect on is the level of entitlement that still prevails among many white South African, and why you believe such entitlement is not only appropriate but should be continued under all and any circumstances.

Barry Saayman
13 Jun

Cognitive Dissonance

>>"You are alluding to some form of debilitating reverse racism against whites, this is premature if you take an honest look at the state of play in this country."

Premature? Honest? When will you be ready to deal with reality?

Only those that don't want to see cannot see the direction, unacceptable results and dangers of majority tyranny, black domination and intimidation by chronic unhappy but well-off upward mobile black people in both the public and private sectors-

"When affirmative action is for the benefit of a minority, its effects can be absorbed without the majority being discriminated against, but with our percentages and with the modalities of our BBBEE, radical discrimination ensues.

This mandatory legal discrimination is meant to apply on a purely racial and not economic basis, leaving no hope for the about 760,000 whites who in the past 19 years have moved from a dignified life into squatter camps and below the poverty line. What policy justification can there be to discriminate against them?" Dr M Ambrosini

Can you please tell me when it will be appropriate in your view for hapless whites to start complaining just as bitterly as the 'Black blue collar workers (that) may experience workplace racism' or must we stay quiet forever because we cause cognitive dissonance in some circles when we speak out?

Barry Saayman
13 Jun

Straw Man Fallacy - Not Rational Debate

>>"Perhaps what you need to reflect on is the level of entitlement that still prevails among many white South African..."

The behavior of White supremacists represented by among others certain artist and cartoonists is despicable and I cannot distance myself far away enough from them.

>>"...such as and why you believe such entitlement is not only appropriate but should be continued under all and any circumstances."

You deliberately misrepresent me and my views. I object.



Barry Saayman
3 Jun

Workplace Racism Part 2

>> "None of this should be all that surprising. Apartheid was underpinned by attitudes far too deeply held to disappear in two decades..."

Apartheid as forced segregation between white and black was unworkable. Forced integration of certain sections of the population whilst Sections 143 (1) (b), 211, 212, 219 (1) (a) and 235 of the Constitution, 1996 as introduced by the SACP/ANC contradict the 'achievement of equality' as a founding provision of our democracy and elevate kings, promote tribalism and separation of kingdoms, must also be questioned.

>>"One is that race still matters here and that it matters most to black people in business and the professions because it is they who are at the sharp end of the racial interface."

And according to your observations the interaction between black and white on this level is strenuous and the white supremacists, if I understand you correctly, are at fault.

Race "still matters" and will always matter in a conflict prone world because idealists trying to cope with diversity soon become realists. And if guilt projections, rationalisations and denialism obscure the dynamics at work the situation will deteriorate without any hope for a solution.

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M Deacon
3 Jun

Managerial Integration

I believe the reason for this can be laid squarely at the door of the patronising and sadly ignorant white Left wing. Their simplistic message runs, as you point out, "apartheid is gone now we are all the same", rather than we are now all equal before the law.

Whites have a huge advantage - the dominant language is their home language, they grew up with a business culture, they are often better educated, more confident and they have drive from the "divine discontent which have made the European the most unhappy but the most progressive of humans" that Smuts wrote about eighty years ago.

What should have been spelt out to black people is that the poor deal that history has dealt them is a major disadvantage in critically the attitudes they inherited from it, lets recognise that and work directly to fix it.

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Ryno
4 Jun

What Do You Mean with "Left Wing"?

Do you know that left wing means tendencies towards socialism, communism and anarchism (in the extreme)?

Don't confuse liberalism with left wing politics. The EFF is by far more left wing than the ANC or the DA who operate by the neo-liberal policies required to have a stable economy in the global market place.



Hassan Asmal
4 Jun

Subtle Racism In Business

In many white owned companies white employees are still receiving higher salaries and annual increases than non-white employees doing the same jobs who are equally as well qualified. Companies still have white matriculants managing non-white graduates.

How can this help race relations?

It is about time that Senior Executives become aware that in continuing such iniquitous policies they are sowing the seeds of the very confrontation that the EFF threatens the country with.

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M Deacon
5 Jun

Competance

There is only one factor that should count: Is the most competent and able person - not the one with the best looking pieces of paper - in the senior position? If the business was yours, would you not make decisions that way? And I bitterly resent having to appoint people on the basis of age, sex, colour and similar factors. it's illogical, dumb and artificial!



Sean
5 Jun

Oh Come On!

This sentence: "At many engagements with companies, it is the white people who speak during the formal sessions and the black people who wait until the meeting is over to approach an invited speaker," is born out of past resentment, not current reality. You want to tell me that in two decades of policies to assist blacks, two decades of being in power, we still sit with this tripe? You're trying to say 400 000 voted EFF because the ANC wanted to employed one white person as premier? it's a numbers game, there are x% of people in each race, and X% of those who are educated/ qualified / experienced for the task. Two decades was enough time for those in power to raise an educated generation who only know of stories of apartheid. In fact this article is subtly based on the assumption that gross racism is taking place toward the black middle class at the hands of the (MINORITY) whites, please move swiftly along and focus on rebuilding and education or we're still going to sit with squat in another 20 years...

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Peter
6 Jun

No, You Come On!

"In fact this article is subtly based on the assumption that gross racism is taking place toward the black middle class at the hands of the (MINORITY) whites."

erm...I think this is pretty much Steven's key point. And it is indeed true in a lot of corporate South Africa. The gross racism might not be as overt as it once was, but it's still present in condescending attitudes and structural inequality. I also think that affirmative action also plays a role in this narrative.



Kimani Verified user
6 Jun

South Africa's Real Ticking Time Bomb: The Black Middle Class

It is not often that I disagree with Friedman's analysis, he is usually spot on but on his current argument that the SA black middle class is a ticking time bomb, he just lost it. Does he believe in what he says or is he deliberately trying to provoke a debate. I guess the latter. Racial exclusion will never be a basis for the SA black middle class to revolt. Never. For goodness sake, this class could not even rise sufficiently to oppose e-tolls in Gauteng which arguably hit it more directly in a material sense than the psychological sense of racial exclusion. Whatever material deprivation that exclusion comes with. I find it fallacious for Friedman to argue that the ANC's dramatic decline in votes in Gauteng was because many of its supporters were angry at the possibility of the ANC appointing a white Premier. Even worse that the 400 000 who chose EFF were angry professionals expressing their anger at the ANC's inability to address their racial exclusion 20 years into democracy. It is true that the poor are not well organised enough to change the material order of things in the country, but to suggest that they are more pragmatic than the middle class is very a long shot. In fact the class that is most pragmatic is the middle class. They have more to lose by engaging in class struggles: their bonded homes, bank financed cars and credit cards. As on old friend of mine once wrote in a newspaper column, the middle class fears not the poor masses, but the Reserve Bank Governor. It's not hard to guess the reason why. If there is an angry class in this country, it is the poor. We have seen them in action. The often violent so-called 'service delivery protests' are sufficient warning if any is needed.

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Thato
7 Jun

Bank Finaced Lifestyle of SA's Black Middle Class Keeps Them in Comfort Zone - They Will Never Revolt!

Well Kimani, the black middle class is too relaxed and comfortable. There is far too much to lose if they try to challenge the current system. They'd rather put on those smiley faces, as if everything fine. They can study as much as they can, but the fact remains that it means very little in the private sector. They will never challenge the system, only poor people can do it for them.

Jean-Paul
8 Jun

Friedman Is Right

There is clear evidence that the bulk of EFF support comes from the lower middle class and not the working class or the poor.

The EFF would do to our economy what ZANU-PF did to the economy in Zimbabwe. Yes the lower middles class are so angry that they are willing to destroy our economy rather than fix it.

Friedman is right.

Paul Whelan
1 Jan

Black Middle Class Ticking Time Bomb

SF is always grinding this axe: a small white minority are holding everything back. It is well-meaning, I suppose, given SF's political leanings, but makes far too many unsupported assumptions. It is dangerous to draw conclusions from 'callers' and one's own theories.



Rory Verified user
8 Jun

Middle Class and Racism

Anybody born and raised in South Africa probably imbued racist stereotypes almost unconsciously from birth. Certainly if you are white, as I am, you did. Because elements of these are unconscious, it takes a lot of inner work to uncover them so that you can rid yourself of them. They are real and unfortunately do not just evaporate. This is an issue that needs to be publicly addressed in order to help people to grapple with their racist demons.

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Everywoman Verified user
9 Jun

Think Again...

I often find myself questioning commentary by Stephen Friedman because it seems to be increasingly simplistic and ideologically charged and, in my opinion, fails to address the real complexities of some of the issues he writes about.

As a white management consultant in private practice, I frequently experience black-on-white racism in interactions with black clients, who seem to feel they can treat white professionals as they please because we have little or no recourse when this happens. I also have increasingly limited access to project work, as most of the work on offer goes to black candidates, even though I'm well qualified and very experienced. And while I accept that subliminal racism still exists in the workplace, my experience of working with large multinationals and international consulting firms is that much of the power in companies like these is, in fact, in the hands of black rather than white managers, many of whom have been sidelined in recent years.

We need to acknowledge that, as much as the legacy of apartheid may still be influencing race relations in the workplace, we live in a regulatory environment that formally provides for black economic empowerment but does not address the issue of equal treatment for white people in the workplace, as allowed for in the Constitution. This also influences race relations, as it leaves many hard-working and qualified white people disempowered and marginalized. This is especially true of young people entering the workplace, where black candidates, as a direct result of legislation, are favoured over white candidates.

What kind of message is this sending to young white people, who always have to take second place to black candidates no matter how hard they may have work or how qualified they may be? Surely the message is very clear: you have to be black to get ahead in South Africa. And if you think that isn't creating a generation of angry white people in the middle class, think again ...

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Deon van Zyl
11 Jun

South Africa's Ticking Timebomb: Its Racist, Self-Entitled Black Middle Class

Friedman, as yet so many Left apologists for Black racism, represents the pinnacle of what is wrong in South Africa: support for the Black Supremacy Movement. This pathetic article has the audacity to justify extremism based on racist beliefs and appear Moral and Just! It does not address Black racism as a factor in belief structure, nor does it address the broad based sense of "entitlement" - you owe me for being Black - prevalent among this exalted middle class. It also assumes that its Marxist rhetoric is the only means of analysis for the problem. It is also utterly racist in assuming that any Black working under a White boss is unhappy! And if he/she is unhappy simply because there is a White boss, he/she is a RACIST! As for the "entitled": you think you will earn respect simply by being "Black"? How does being a BEE/BBBEE appointee improve White perception of you? After all, according to this ideology, you are pathetic and cannot achieve according to merit. Does the job get done simply because you are "Black"? What did you do to put South Africa at the cutting edge of world competition in any industry? You are so amazing that no White can teach you anything. If you are so amazing, show us the results!



Ndzunisani
24 Jun

Workplace Racism

Interesting, you are raising an interesting issue which should be talked about. However, I think you are approaching a bigger issue with a myopic view here. At times the problem comes from the white folk also. Sometimes people leave home with a balanced view - however become forced to take a side either at varsity or at the workplace.

The treatment that the black middle class get at a professional level from white folk is also a factor at times. Note that I'm not saying this is the main factor. What I have seen, is that although we say we have moved on from apartheid, in reality however, the majority of the people are just tolerating each other and have not really moved on. This tolerance then creates trust issues, which resulting in formation of racial groups. This is because of two main problems in my view.

(a) Some of the white folk question the competence of black people and do not really believe in the excellence of black people, although a lot white people hide this. After a while black people realises this and start retreating. Not that I’m saying all white people do this.

And (b) is a social issue, which is not a matter of black and white but of being comfortable to express thought without becoming the center of attention or being ignored. This sometimes has to do with our different backgrounds. For example, when one starts talking about the time he/she spent traveling with family, fishing, surfing, etc., while I had a different experience in my childhood, it is then difficult to participate in the conversation. If this happens too often, it then becomes natural to retreat. For black folk who went to multiracial schools, for example, it comes making white friends comes naturally to them because they are comfortable with each other, hence there are no trust issues.

And also cultural issues like not being allowed to speak when the elder is speaking (not being used to raising your view and being listened to) etc. There are a lot issues that comes from our differences, which limit our domain of similarity. To change this, we need to talk about these issues, approaching them not only talking about them among our racial group spaces. On the other hand, you have some racial groups teaching their children about how unimportant the other races are, which is another issue.

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Barry Saayman
15 Aug

Goodwill and Non-racialism in the Rainbow Nation are Eroding. What Can Be Done about It?

>>"What I have seen, is that although we say we have moved on from apartheid, in reality however, the majority of the people are just tolerating each other and have not really moved on. This tolerance then creates trust issues, which resulting in formation of racial groups."

I think there is little tolerance between racial groups.

Why and how must we 'move on' whilst trust issues prevails?

According to the Gauteng Quality of Life Survey released on 14 August 2014, 44% of whites in Gauteng don't trust blacks and feel that black and white will 'never' trust each other.

Equally alarming is that 73% of black respondents don't trust whites and feel that black and white will 'never' trust each other.

According to Professor David Everatt, GCRO Executive Director, this distrust is 'held deeply' by 77% to 100% of the respondents in the 'older townships' (not squatter camps - rural areas?) namely 'Mamelodi, Soshanguve, Mabopane in Tshwane, Alexandra, Soweto in Johannesburg, Khutsong in the West Rand, Thokoza, Tsakane and Tembisa on the East Rand, along with Sebokeng in the Vaal'.

Dr Steven Friedman observed that SA's "real 'ticking time bomb' may be not poverty, but what it always has been – race. Our angriest people may not be those forced to survive on much less than they need, but the black middle class."

The Quality of Life Survey confirms, in my opinion, his observation.

This anger directed by black people at whites and the white anger directed at what is seen as unacceptable black behavior, is in fact threatening our collective future.

Goodwill and non-racialism are eroding. What can be done about it?



Ronni
18 Jul

I Dare Say....

I said this after my first elaborate visit to South Africa during the year 2008...it's not going away by pretending it does not exist AKA rainbow-nation-ism where other colours are brighter than the majority.

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