The Political Role of the African Middle Class: The Over-Politicization of an Elusive Category
- Dominique DarbonDominique DarbonInstitute of Political Studies of Bordeaux
The African middle class (AMC) is an elusive category with high political significance. In spite of its vagueness and its controversial nature, this so-called social category is consistently used by a number of individual actors and institutions alike, including IO, NGOs, business interests, and political leaders in Africa for political purposes. The words “African middle class” are suggestive enough to produce new images of African social structures and turn the “hopeless continent” into a “miracle,” a new “powerhouse.” They are strong enough to grant new legitimacy to failing political leaders and the well off and to let people and academics alike anticipate the rise of democratic, stable, uncorrupted institutions. However, people “of the middle of the diamond” in Africa do not exist as a social community or a class. They do not share a common political identity. They have no political role of their own. The diversity of social subgroups may occasionally mobilize together, but for a short period of time and on highly different grounds. The political role of the AMC is as elusive as their mere existence. New social groups of limited prosperity are on the rise. However, they are far from making a class and mobilizing for political purposes.
The rise of middle classes in emerging countries became a research theme at the beginning of the 2000s. The discussion took root in sub-Saharan African countries in the 2010s without any in-depth debate about its relevance. It was as if the AMC or classes already existed before the examination of a still very confused and heterogeneous set of transformations of the social structure of African societies was conducted. As a result, the AMC concept appears in almost all analyses as elastic, elusive, cobbled together, and uncertain as to its boundaries, its characteristics, its components, or its homogeneity. This confusion does not prevent authors from anticipating the meaning and effects of the AMC for political stability and democratization. Before studying how the people grouped behind this label can affect and be affected by politics and policies, it is necessary to understand how politically loaded this middle-class label is.