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Vulnerability and the Middle Class in South Africa


  • Rocco Zizzamia

    (Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit at the University of Cape Town)

  • Simone Schotte

    (German Institute of Global and Area Studies and the Georg-August-University Göttingen)

  • Murray Leibbrandt

    (Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit, University of Cape Town.)

  • Vimal Ranchhod

    (SALDRU, University of Cape Town)


Apartheid imposed a rigid racialised system of unequal resource distribution on South African society, resulting in one of the highest rates of inequality in the world. Since apartheid ended in 1994, this aggregate income inequality has not improved. The persistence of extraordinarily high levels of poverty and inequality makes the definition and measurement of the 'middle class' particularly challenging. A review of previous work on the middle class, both in South Africa and in other developing countries, illustrates the difficulty of addressing this challenge. Recent research showing growth in the South African middle class often classifies as 'middle class' households which either fall below the basic-needs poverty line or are vulnerable to poverty. This notion of economic insecurity conflicts with the sociological understanding of the middle class as an 'empowered' class. In this paper, we attempt to develop a conceptually and empirically rigorous approach to defining and measuring the middle class in South Africa. Arguing that the notion of 'empowerment' is central to the social and political meanings of 'middle class', we propose an empirical strategy that uses (in)vulnerability to poverty as the key criterion defining middle class status. Using the panel dimension of the nationally representative National Income Dynamics Study (NIDS), we present a probability model that predicts the risk of staying in or falling into poverty over a six-year time frame, depending on a broad array of initial household conditions and resources. We select the expenditure level associated with a maximum risk to poverty of 10 percent as the lower bound of the middle class and the expenditure level associated with effective invulnerability to poverty as the upper bound. This gives us a monthly per capita expenditure range of R3,104 to R10,387 (January 2015 prices). Using these thresholds, we find that the middle class in South Africa is smaller than previous research has suggested (with a population share of about 13.5 percent in 2014), and has grown sluggishly since 1993. Despite this, there has been considerable demographic transformation within the middle class, with Africans now outnumbering whites by a significant margin.

Suggested Citation

  • Rocco Zizzamia & Simone Schotte & Murray Leibbrandt & Vimal Ranchhod, 2016. "Vulnerability and the Middle Class in South Africa," SALDRU Working Papers 188, Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit, University of Cape Town.
  • Handle: RePEc:ldr:wpaper:188

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Josh Budlender & Murray Leibbrandt & Ingrid Woolard, 2015. "South African poverty lines: a review and two new money-metric thresholds," SALDRU Working Papers 151, Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit, University of Cape Town.
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    13. Ronelle Burger & Cindy Lee Steenekamp & Servaas van der Berg & Asmus Zoch, 2015. "The emergent middle class in contemporary South Africa: Examining and comparing rival approaches," Development Southern Africa, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 32(1), pages 25-40, January.
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    Cited by:

    1. Schotte, Simone, 2017. "The Anxious and the Climbers: Ambivalent Attitudes towards Democracy among South Africa's Middle Class," GIGA Working Papers 304, GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies.

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