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Africa's new middle class: fact and fiction of its transformative power

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Giesbert, Lena; Schotte, Simone

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Corporate Editor GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies - Leibniz-Institut für Globale und Regionale Studien, Institut für Afrika-Studien
Abstract Africa's middle class has become a central protagonist in the development discourse. Beyond providing hope of economic growth, some analysts see it as a bastion of political stability, progress, and democratic consolidation. Many recent protests and (partly successful) attempts to overthrow ageing statesmen who tried to overstay in power have been connected by the media to the rise of an African middle class. After a decade of strong but largely jobless economic growth, the bulk of sub-Saharan Africa's new non-poor is still at the crossroads between upward and downward mobility. Researchers increasingly agree that the size and economic potential of African consumer markets have been exaggerated. Similarly, the link frequently made between the rise of a new African middle class and pro-democratic political reforms remains fragile. Rising incomes and falling poverty rates cannot easily be equated with the emergence of a politically conscious middle class that supports democracy and good governance. The economic and political transformative power of African middle classes will depend on (a) the development of a shared identity that goes beyond ethnic and historical ties, (b) economical detachment from state benefices, (c) increased political activism among the better educated, and (d) the alignment of political self-interest with the needs of the broader population. Creating jobs and reducing persistent inequalities remain central challenges that governments must face in order to prevent the frequently largest group of "strugglers" among the middle class from backsliding into poverty. Policy implications: Africa's rising middle class is not a homogeneous actor but a mosaic of different groups under a common label. Driven mainly by frustration, there is an increasingly vocal and politically conscious share of young, urban citizens within the lower middle class strata. The upper strata, however, are characterised by political lethargy and bias towards the status quo, which render the great expectations placed on the middle class's transformative political power unjustified.
Keywords Africa South of the Sahara; socioeconomic development; social structure; social stratum; middle class; living conditions; social inequality; political participation; social consciousness; political consciousness; democratization; good governance
Classification Macrosociology, Analysis of Whole Societies; Political Process, Elections, Political Sociology, Political Culture
Document language English
Publication Year 2016
City Hamburg
Page/Pages 12 p.
Series GIGA Focus Afrika, 1
ISSN 1862-3603
Status Published Version; not reviewed
Licence Creative Commons - Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works