In 2011, an African Development Bank report categorised one-third of Africa’s population – about 313 million people – as “middle class”.1 The term was controversially applied to those earning between US$2 and US$20 a day. The growth of a middle class in Africa has been widely celebrated in reports by international consultancies and investment banks eager to stimulate investment – and fees. A burgeoning middle class should boost tax revenues and consumer demand. It is generally considered to be good for political accountability and democracy, and a catalyst for social development, job creation, innovation and poverty reduction.
This narrative is problematic for many reasons. Middle classes are heterogeneous: their characteristics vary country by country. Most reports celebrating Africa’s rapidly growing middle class assign membership on the basis of income. But middle class and middle income are not synonymous and should not be conflated. “Class” is a socio-economic concept typically defined by many more indicators than income alone. Indeed, in contemporary Africa it is questionable whether Marxist-Weberian definitions of “class” fashioned in the West have any relevance at all.