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The middle class should be wary of the limits of their parallel state

The writer warns the middle class about not taking part in the political discourse. Picture: Tracey Adams/African News Agency (ANA)

The writer warns the middle class about not taking part in the political discourse. Picture: Tracey Adams/African News Agency (ANA)

Published May 12, 2022


OPINION: It is clear that for most South Africans, it will either take a long time or a personal and negative lived experience, such as violent crime, to realise that the country has been destroyed.

Dr Mabutho Shangase

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What will it take for the middle class(es) to assume their meaningful role in society and demand proper leadership from the political executive?

A lot of assumptions and expectations are heaped on the middle class. Based on their levels of education, affluence, influence and occupations, the middle class seems to have a lot of potential to turn the country around and put it on a more prosperous footing only if they could be more organised to put pressure on politicians to lead. But is it that simple?

South Africa is faced by a multiplicity of challenges including corruption and lawlessness within the state; rising levels of poverty, unemployment and inequality; civil unrest; tension between locals and foreign nationals; deteriorating infrastructure; porous borders; and rising fuel and food prices, all converging simultaneously and forming an unwieldy negative configuration.

It doesn’t help that the state and the governing party, the ANC, is at the centre of the quandary. While it is expected that the middle class take charge and lead by putting pressure on the government to be accountable, they also face the conundrum of dependence on the state for their own employment and business contracts. Better yet, they comprise the same contingent of public officials who have failed society through dereliction of duty, which complicates matters further.

The submission of the fourth report and last instalment of the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture bears testimony to the rot at the upper echelons of the state apparatus. Corruption and lawlessness are endemic in the Republic but since most people are able to go about their daily routines and earn a living, stating that the country that was inherited after the collapse of apartheid 28 years ago has been gradually and persistently destroyed sounds a tad hyperbolic.

The middle class seems trained on their quotidian habits and activities sustained thinly by their precarious economic stratum standing. The middles classes of all races continue to enjoy some semblance of order, security and stability as long as they are able to pay for the conveniences that come with their economic positioning. It is clear that for most South Africans, it will either take a long time or a personal and negative lived experience, such as violent crime, to realise that the country has been destroyed.

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The middle classes consequently can afford to pay for a bouquet of private services including health care, education, safety and security, as well as other niceties proffered by their suburban gated communities.

As the country is being strangulated by crime, corruption and mis-governance, the middle class seem to have mastered the art of burying their heads in the proverbial sand. Although the middle classes are said to be located just above the poor and only below the rich, by virtue of their relative comforts much is expected from them when it comes to activism, leadership and providing direction to the country politically and from an economic viewpoint.

However, the illusion of the parallel state keeps the middle classes going, they can afford private services and hardly rely on the state for essential amenities, and instances of disruptions to services tend to be attended to with speed when compared to poor communities who are forced to endure long periods without basic services such as water and electricity.

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The poor masses in rural and urban settings either bear the brunt of poor services or the lack thereof, deteriorating public infrastructure and the shambolic state of public schools and health facilities. It has become a norm across the width and breath of the country to an encounter roads littered with potholes and wrecked traffic lights. Informal settlements continue to be an abiding feature in most urban centres, including Cape Town which is touted as a world-class city.

Due to public sector ineptitude and poor planning, as society, we have adapted to periodic load shedding which has devastating effects on the economy and livelihoods in general. Crime and violence have also become a permanent occurrence and new unprecedented delinquencies such as kidnappings and abductions have permeated the social fabric. All the wicked problems are, sadly, summarily normalised and treated as part of the times and as inevitable happenings. There is no sense of crisis from the political executive, it is business as usual.

All this begs the question: Why are South Africans not taking to the streets and demanding accountability and proper governance from the ruling party?

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Whereas the middle classes continue to be cushioned off from poor services as they benefit from apartheid spatial planning, most black people, including those who enjoy some middle-class existence remain exposed to poor governance as many maintain close relations with family and relatives in townships and rural areas that they support financially and otherwise.

The mis-governance of the country is, therefore, not something distant and unfamiliar to many, in one way or the other everyone is eventually affected. While the middle classes continue to relish the trinkets brought by the parallel state and moments of escapism via sports and entertainment courtesy of satellite television, they should be wary of the limits of this disinterested and detached living.

In the aftermath of July 2021 riots, the devastation of the Covid pandemic on jobs and businesses, the country is compelled to recalibrate its thinking. South Africans, as a collective, have proved to be very patient and resilient in the face of poor governance, but there are no guarantees that the populace will invariably remain orderly and await another five-year interval of elections. At this point, in other countries people would have by now been extremely restive and called for a snap election instead of waiting for 2024. It is also by the sheer making of history that resorting to armed uprisings is never an option despite the ubiquity of army fatigues on the streets.

Ideally, the parallel state of private services should have been a building block towards making stern demands on the political executive to lead instead of being a breeding ground for complacency and detachment. The middle classes therefore continue to function far below their full potential to make the country better.

* Dr. Mabutho Shangase is a researcher in humanities at the Institute for Global African Affairs in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Johannesburg.

** The views expressed here may not necessarily be that of IOL.