A Generation Out of Apartheid: Intergenerational Educational Experiences among the South African Black Middle Class
South African apartheid restricted social and economic mobility among Black people. With the abolition of apartheid in 1994, a Black middle class was actualized. This study gives voice to four individuals who graduated university under apartheid. It also delves into the educational experiences of their three children who are attending university post-apartheid. Accordingly, this project offers insight into the role apartheid played in parents’ upward mobility. Furthermore, it explains how parents’ upward mobility impacts the lives of their children. The intergenerational nature of this project provides a unique perspective because students’ perceptions and experiences are examined alongside those of their parents. This provides a fuller, more valid account of the parent–child relationship. Participants’ narratives show high levels of communication between parents and children. Accordingly, these university students are very knowledgeable about apartheid and its impact on their lives. Each student feels hopeful about the future and recognizes her ability to dream is different than her parents’ educational experiences, where the opportunity structure was much more restrictive. Despite progress, the Black middle class continues to face some barriers as a result of apartheid.
Keywords: South Africa; Black middle class; education; mobility; apartheid
Apartheid was a system of oppression that subordinated non-White people from 1948 until 1994. The recency of abolition renders this social phenomenon significant because much social progress is new. In fact, participants refer to post-apartheid South Africa as the New South Africa. Due to greater education opportunities, the New South Africa has yielded a more sizable Black middle class. Mabandla (2013) argues that the existence of three generations of middle-class Black people exist: early twentieth century, mid-twentieth century, and the present. The first generation in this study constitutes Mabandla’s third generation, making this study’s second generation Mabandla’s would-be fourth generation of middle-class Black people because these participants will be graduating university in a few years and joining the middle-class ranks. Accordingly, this project examines the third and fourth generations of the Black middle class. However, this study refers to these participants as first and second generation because this study only examines two generations. The first generation was restricted in its job opportunities in that its members could only become clergy, teachers, social workers, and nurses. Such is not the case for the second generation because they can exercise broader choices in terms of education and overall life aspirations, including residential preferences. As such, this study examines intergenerational mobility—the foundations of such mobility and the hopes for greater mobility.
While there were likely subjective definitions of middle class for non-White people under apartheid, the New South Africa allows Black people and coloured people to achieve middle-class status through objective means. Subjective definitions include respect for performing certain jobs, yet are seldom associated with high-level income. Objective definitions include respect for performing certain jobs and high-level income. Accordingly, middle-class Black and coloured people currently earn income that would allow them to purchase homes, travel internationally, and send their children to private or semi-private schools. This article’s reference to schools as “private” includes private and semi-private schools. Private schools receive little to no government funding, whereas semi-private schools are government-run schools that charge a fee. This fee might be nominal to some (i.e., many White people), while prohibitive to others (i.e., many Black and coloured people). For the participants in this study, the fees are somewhere between nominal and prohibitive. Accordingly, these fees could be referred to as sacrificial because participants must sacrifice some want/need to send their children to these semi-private institutions. Some government-run schools do not charge fees. These schools tend to be located in Black and coloured townships and lack a variety of amenities that enhance one’s educational experience. The fees charged by some schools restrict attendance to those who can afford the fees and provide enhancements to enrich the educational experience. Furthermore, this article highlights the role a university education plays in enabling parents to earn a level of income to support the aforementioned experiences. Accordingly, middle-class identity is central to this study, as it provides the opportunity for the second generation to experience additional upward mobility. While this article strives to elucidate socioeconomic progression, it also presents persistent challenges, among Black and coloured South Africans.
Black and coloured people are of interest because they make up 80 percent and 8 percent, respectively, of South Africa’s population. For the purposes of this article, Black and coloured people fit under the umbrella of the “Black middle class.” To contextualize the racial distinction and varying social experiences, the racial categories in South Africa are: White, Indian, coloured, and Black (or African). Historically, these categories were formulated hierarchically, in that White people received the greatest privilege and Black people experienced the greatest disadvantage, while Indian and coloured peoples received privilege/disadvantage in the respective aforementioned order. Such racial hierarchy persists and explains the varied social experiences of Black and coloured study participants. Though Black and coloured people are distinct racial groups, with different social experiences, they ultimately experience similar oppression. Accordingly, comparisons and contrasts are made between the two groups because the Black middle class is heterogeneous in some regards. In addition to the salience of race, social class is salient. The middle class is of interest because the middle class shows the progress of a nation (Birdsall 2010; Easterly 2001; Burger et al. 2017; Resnick 2015). It serves as an attainable aspiration for some citizens. Additionally, the middle class subsidizes costs for the poorer class, as social services are made possible by taxes and fees paid by the middle class.
Taking an intersectional approach, race and class are examined simultaneously. The intersection of social locations elucidates the complex nature of social resources and racial identity (Khunou 2014). As such, individuals of the same race have varying levels of resources. As a result, lower-resourced Black people experience life differently than higher-resourced Black people. While this presents as common knowledge, many presume an absence of Black affluence in Africa. Conversely, when people hear of one’s middle-class status, they presume one does not face disadvantages. Middle-class Black people’s marginal position as affluent and Black highlights disadvantages that are not faced by non-Black middle-class citizens. Ironically, middle-class Black people face disadvantages that poorer Black people do not face. These disadvantages generally come in the form of less social support due to perceived privilege. Though this disadvantage is different, it is important to note that the common racial identity between middle-class Black people and poorer Black people results in persistent disadvantage in some capacity. Though middle-class Black people face disadvantages, such is not the crux of this study, as much popular discourse focuses on disadvantages of the South African Black middle class (Iqani 2015). Furthermore, many popular media outlets have characterized the new Black middle class in a negative fashion. McEwan and colleagues (2015) argue the literature on the South African Black middle class generally covers stereotypes and irresponsibility. My participants’ narratives largely exemplify Black affluence. Such affluence is also salient because this segment of the Black middle class is recent because the New South Africa is only twenty-five years old. The first generation lived through apartheid and progressed socially as a result of apartheid’s abolition. Their progress after the abolition of an oppressive system, along with the narratives of their children, enable scholars to attain greater insight about hope, sacrifice, and vertical intergenerational mobility.
The body of literature on middle-class Black South Africans is relatively scant. Many studies that have examined middle-class Black people tend to be theoretical in nature. Accordingly, these studies ask significant questions about who belongs in the middle class (Banerjee and Duflo 2008; Birdsall 2010; Burger et al. 2017; Crankshaw 2012; Resnick 2015; Thurlow et al. 2015; Visagie and Posel 2013). Other studies examine economic or political facets of the middle-class experience (Crankshaw 2012; Resnick 2015). Rivero and colleagues (2003) recognize the dearth of studies on the role of education and social structure. They also claim the middle class generally grows shortly after the start of a democracy, but they are unsure about whether it will keep growing. The study fills the aforementioned gaps in the literature because it is empirical, examines education and social structure, and speaks about the sustenance/growth of the middle class.
Many of the popular sources highlight the South African Black middle class in a negative fashion, as largely conspicuous consumers (Iqani 2015). In response to this body of literature, McEwan et al. (2015) call for studies to examine ethical consumption because all consumption is not equal.
While the study at hand did not initially plan to study consumption, it became clear that consumption patterns are of interest. However, these consumption patterns are not conspicuous consumption patterns, rather productive consumption patterns.
In terms of research methods, many studies are quantitative, and as a result, what is known about the Black middle class is broad and topical (Phadi and Ceruti 2011; Rivero et al. 2003; Thurlow et al. 2015; Visagie and Posel 2013). Through qualitative inquiry, this study highlights unique experiences that defy the aforementioned stereotypes such as materialism and vulnerability. Additionally, there is literature on intergenerational mobility (Krige 2015). However, Krige’s work generally captures the experiences of intergenerational mobility through a single person/generation. For instance, his participant is asked about experiences with mobility, but neither parent of the participant is interviewed. Accordingly, it can be argued that Krige’s study is intergenerational, but the methods of inquiry are not intergenerational. Finally, his study focuses on the process of developing wealth. The study at hand focuses on how finances/wealth are deployed for the betterment of the successive generation (i.e., intergenerational mobility).
Though there is literature on members of the Black middle class in South Africa, literature on their educational experiences is scant. Accordingly, this study examines intergenerational educational experiences of the Black middle class. It fills various gaps in the literature pertaining to middle-class Black people. It also employs unique research methods in terms of data collection and analysis. Through such, it quashes the unproductive narratives about middle-class Black people and empirically highlights their sacrifice and strong values toward nonmaterial resources (i.e., education).
To understand intergenerational mobility among middle-class Black people, this study employs face-to-face interviews with three families, totaling seven participants. These families varied in structure. One family was composed of a mother and a daughter. Another family consisted of a father and a daughter. The last family included a mother, a father, and a daughter. For the purposes of this study, parents are referred to as the first generation. Children/students are referred to as the second generation. Parents were interviewed separately from children. However, the dual parent interview was conducted as one interview. Interviews with parents took place at their homes, in metropolitan Cape Town and Johannesburg. Interviews with students took place on university campuses, in metropolitan Cape Town and Johannesburg. Parents and children were interviewed separately for several reasons. Separate interviews created a form of validity. Parents’ statements and children’s statements could (in)validate each other. Additionally, neither parents’ nor children’s sentiments were stifled by the presence of one another. Participants could be transparent in their sentiments, and their sentiments were uncontested. Furthermore, data transcription and analysis is simpler with fewer participants in one setting. Interviews ranged from 40 minutes to 115 minutes and took place in May and June 2018. The following are sample questions/prompts posed to parents:
- Describe your childhood.
- Why did you attend university?
- How were educational opportunities/experiences similar or different for you than they were for your child(ren)?
- How has your social class influenced your child’s life?
- What role does apartheid’s history play in your life?
- What goals do you have for your child?
The following are sample questions/prompts posed to children:
- Describe your childhood.
- What do you know about your parents’ education?
- Describe yourself as a student.
- Why did you attend university?
- How were educational opportunities/experiences similar or different for you than they were for your parents?
- In terms of education, describe the level of support you received from your parents.
- How would you describe your social class?
- How has your social class influenced your life?
- What role does apartheid’s history play in your life?
- What goals do your parents have for you?
- When comparing yourself to your parents, what does social mobility look like for you?
Participants were recruited through convenience sampling. A South African colleague asked her graduate student assistants to recruit their friends. I also utilized Facebook to connect with South Africans. Through this Facebook request, an acquaintance connected me with a native South African who currently lives in the United States. Coincidentally, the South African native was scheduled to visit South Africa during the time I planned to visit. She connected me with family who became participants. Finally, I walked around a university campus in metropolitan Cape Town and found a student willing to participate. This student also connected me to her mother who lives in metropolitan Johannesburg. Her mother also became a participant.
The sample size for this study is small. As with all qualitative research, it is not generalizable, and this is not seen as a shortcoming but rather as an asset. In alignment with qualitative approaches, it aims to give voice to participants whose voices are absent in the scholarly literature. A small sample size allowed for deep conversation, which led to thick, rich data. Six interviews yielded 510 minutes of data to be transcribed, verified for accuracy, and coded. While small scale, the data are impactful and provide a foundation for quantitative projects that strive to create generalizable trends among the South African Black middle class.
Initially, the study was supposed to examine the educational experiences of Black (not coloured) South Africans. After discussing the project with my South African colleague, she explained the shared oppression and encouraged me to include coloured South Africans. In fact, my colleague and family members report coloured South Africans informally consider themselves Black. One might argue my colleague is biased and wants her interests represented. However, throughout the interviews, it is clear that lived experiences are similar, though there are differences as well. Having completed the interviews, the inclusion of coloured participants in the study was a sound and valuable suggestion. It provided the opportunity to ascertain Black people’s perceptions of coloured people and vice versa. These perceived differences are systemic in that the social engineers of apartheid created a system where the two racial groups would not recognize their shared oppression.
There were only three criteria for participating in the study. Students and parents must self-identify as Black or coloured. The student must be enrolled in a four-year university. Lastly, at least one parent must possess a four-year university degree. In terms of recruitment, there was one limitation—gender. All of my student participants are women. If men participated, it would have been possible to compare and contrast experiences based on gender.
Operationalization of the Middle Class
There is no common definition for the global middle class (Birdsall 2010; Cárdenas et al. 2011). Some studies use financial definitions (Banerjee and Duflo 2008). However, when studying global populations and writing for a global audience, financial definitions can be complex because middle-class standards of living vary by country and culture. Additionally, Burger et al. (2017) state, “it is highly unlikely that a definition of the middle class that is based on an income threshold will adequately capture the political and social meanings of being middle class” (2). Furthermore, many people consider themselves middle class because they are non-poor (Phadi and Ceruti 2011; Thurlow et al. 2015). However, these participants possess a secondary level of education or less. Accordingly, they would not fit the definition of middle class for this study because they cannot provide the same level of support to their children as parents in this study. Conversely, participants in another study do not consider themselves members of the middle class, though one participant has a PhD and the other participant is in the final stages of earning a PhD (Khunou 2014). As a result, self-identification is not always a valid representation of middle-class membership. Instead of the aforementioned manners of operationalizing middle-class membership, this study uses education level. To be considered middle class, at least one parent must possess a four-year university degree. This definition presumes education enhances one’s financial standing and is correlated with social and cultural resources. Burger et al. (2015) suggest middle-class membership is “increased agency and empowerment that allow individuals to competently navigate their own destinies and realise their own potential” (27). Accordingly, this article argues education is a strong determinant of one’s lifestyle and the opportunities one can offer his/her children (Birdsall 2010; Burger et al. 2015). Though education as a sole determinant of class membership is not the most robust definition, it is ideal for this study because there is a global audience. Financial privilege in one country does not always translate as financial privilege in another country (Banerjee and Duflo 2008). However, above average educational attainment usually translates into professional employment and higher incomes (Burger et al. 2017). These three components are included in one’s socioeconomic status (SES). Education serves as a proxy for SES in this study.
Some researchers of the middle class focus on finances to determine class membership while other researchers focus on general attitudes and values toward education (Cárdenas et al. 2011). Though this study examines finances, it truly examines the value around finances, as these values pertain to education. Furthermore, as a face-to-face qualitative study with newly acquainted participants, asking about specific financial information did not seem respectful. Such questions could have created reservations and diminished participation. Lastly, finances are not the crux of this study. This study is interested in how financial resources are ultimately connected to parents’ education levels and deployed as resources, based on parents’ high values for education.
There is a burgeoning body of literature on middle-class Black South Africans. However, little is known about the intergenerational educational experiences of Black and coloured South Africans. Accordingly, this study employs open coding to see what common themes emerge across interviews. To capture these themes, I listened to each interview while reading it. This served two purposes—to verify the accuracy of transcription and to summarize the data into reasonable topics. The initial topics are too numerous to mention. However, these topics fall under ten categories: role of apartheid in parents’ upward mobility; impact of parents’ mobility on children; opportunities for children and parents; university-going process for children and parents; high levels of communication between parents and children; children’s knowledge of apartheid; parental sacrifice; educational privilege; hope for the future; and present-day results of apartheid. After further examination of these ten categories, four themes emerged: (1) intergenerational mobility; (2) role the Black middle class plays in children’s lives; (3) intergenerational communication; and (4) role of apartheid. Though the aforementioned are major themes, these themes are discussed in two major sections of this article—Progress in the New South Africa and Lasting Impressions of Apartheid. Themes one through three are covered in the first section. The fourth theme is covered in the second section.
Progress in the New South Africa
While some feel there has not been progress in South Africa, study participants are examples of progress. Twenty-five years ago, university students would not have the opportunity to attend prestigious private K–12 schools, study any discipline, or attend any university. Furthermore, their aspirations would not be to become entrepreneurs, political officials, doctors, and other highly respected professionals, and they would not have aspirations of becoming wealthy. While not all South Africans have experienced relief and a broader opportunity structure, many have. Parents have a newfound hope for their children and invest in that hope with their middle-class resources. Moreover, students take advantage of the material and immaterial resources available to them. These resources will enhance the chances of materializing their aspirations. Without the abolition of apartheid, the Black middle class would not be what it is today—with a burgeoning sense of hope as well as financial resources to prepare the successive generation for success.
Creation of a Larger Black Middle Class
The abolition of apartheid undoubtedly enhanced the size of the Black middle class by objective standards. Through policies associated with abolition, members of the first generation enhanced their socioeconomic status by attending university, while none of the first generation’s parents attended university. The first generation entered university toward the end of apartheid and as a result were able to attend universities as opposed to vocational colleges. However, the choice of study was not open. Accordingly, most first-generation participants attended university to become social service agents—teachers, social workers, nurses, or clergy. Vocational colleges previously provided the credentials required for the aforementioned service jobs. These colleges function much like American community colleges used to function, and to a lesser degree still function—largely preparing students for specific occupations. After attaining such professional work via university education, they became the first generation of white-collar middle-class Black South Africans. In alignment with a new socioeconomic status, this generation and the successive generation could realistically dream of continued upward mobility. Students recognize they have greater opportunities than their parents, in terms of studying where they want and what they want.
One is not limited to being a teacher or a nurse. Now you can actually do whatever your heart tells you. My older sister is studying drama. Back in the day you could have never said I’m going to study drama as a career, ’cause it would be like I’m paying for your education and your career still has no guarantee. Why would I sacrifice so much and now that is possible, you’re actually able to pursue your passion while still learning so much from the education system. (Participant #1, Black university student)
Choosing a field that has significant variability in pay is a risk and characteristic of one who has a safety net. This article argues such risk is characteristic of the middle class and less likely characteristic of poorer citizens.
Parents also recognize their children’s ability to enhance their social status. Congruence between parents’ and children’s understandings of the opportunity structure are important because they validate aspirations. As an older generation, parents understand the social structure well. Sometimes children’s perceptions are jaded because they hear empty promises from the government and education system. Other times, parents have lived through social challenges that render them hopeless about the future. Children are sometimes more hopeful because they lack experience with some social challenges faced by their parents. However, parents and children have high aspirations. One father wants his daughter to earn a doctorate. In his younger years, it was structurally impossible for a Black person to earn a doctorate. In fact, first-generation participants were asked if they ever met a 70-year-old Black physician. It was not possible. The unequivocal absence of Black physicians and other professionals depressed the aspirations of Black children. When discussing aspirations, a coloured mother and father—participants #3 and #4—stated, “We do not want our children to be fearful of the future, but to encourage them actually that what they are given, the opportunities they were given, that they can actually dream bigger.” Their aspirations for fearless children might suggest they were fearful. Today, high aspirations are broader and higher than ever among the participants. Participant #7—a Black university student—aspires to wealth and says, “I will be able to go whichever place I want to, whereas my parents literally had to live in a certain area.” Another participant explains her belief in meritocracy in terms of reaching her aspirations:
I think I lived my whole life, telling myself I would love to get out of this situation and although it’s not bad, you always think you can do better so I definitely think that shaped my education because I believed that if you work hard enough, if you get this degree, if you pass this test, you’ll be able to live in the place where you want to and nothing will be able to stop you so I definitely think that played a role in my education. (Participant #2, coloured university student)
Though she holds meritocratic values, she recognizes meritocracy has limits and is not equally applicable to all situations and demographics. For instance, she expresses concern about equality and not being a part of the “old boys” club. Existing on the periphery of this group, she feels she will have fewer opportunities than White men. Moreover, while she has hope, not all people are hopeful. Poorer Black people are less hopeful because “it all depends on what your household’s financial state is looking like. A lot of your education depends on what your financial status is looking like.” While she offers a structural explanation of poverty/immobility, one where policies create poverty/immobility, another student and her father offer cultural explanations. Cultural explanations suggest groups’ values explain their poverty/immobility. While structural explanations are macro, cultural explanations are micro or individual. Such individual explanations suggest poorer citizens can relieve themselves of poverty by altering their values. The tender system is one form of reparations in South Africa. It is an effort to increase minority entrepreneurship through offering government contracts to minority-led businesses to perform services. When speaking about a plethora of entrepreneurial opportunities through the tender system, participant #7 stated:
If you put your mind into it and all your effort into it and draft a decent business plan. You can establish a proper business company for yourself that can provide proper services to any government entity for any opportunities they might need to outsource. (Participant #7, Black university student)
Her meritocratic views are more conservative than the views of participant #2 because she feels Black citizens who do not take advantage of the tender system lack the necessary effort to enhance their social status. There is little ambiguity concerning her sentiments, as her father—participant #5—states, “You’ll find people using the freedom that we have to go down instead of moving up.” Despite the viewpoint, twenty-five years into the New South Africa, many lack hope and are immobile. However, these participants exemplify hope in the Black middle class.
Deployable Middle-Class Resources
Parents’ middle-class status impacts the overall lived experience of the second generation. Children benefit in terms of financial, cultural, and social capitals. These capitals provide the second generation with benefits and deployable resources the first generation’s parents lacked. Deployable resources are those that can be used for one’s development. For instance, if a child has a wealthy parent who will not pay for her education, she does not have deployable financial resources. Throughout the study, all parents mention their investment in their children in efforts to strengthen and position the second generation for greater success. Though none of the parents hail from destitute poverty, they are intergenerationally and vertically mobile. Their children have the propensity to accomplish even more than their parents because of the aforementioned financial, cultural, and social capitals. While students possess strong financial and cultural capitals, their social capital exists in a slightly limited capacity.
Impact of Resources on Education and Extracurricular Experiences
Parents’ financial capital influences students’ pre-university educational experiences. Each student attended prominent, tuition-based secondary schools. Participant #1 attended a private boarding school. She was a scholarship recipient but states her mother could afford the tuition, if needed. Participants #2 and #7 attended Former Model C Schools as a result of their parents’ ability to pay for schooling. Many Model C Schools were public schools located in rich White areas and thus restricted to White students under apartheid. Some Model C Schools are private or semi-private, but are no longer formally restricted to White South Africans, and so they are referred to as Former Model C Schools. However, due to these schools’ foundational nature, location in historically White areas, as well as persistent financial oppression that prohibits Black and coloured people from affording private education, few Black and coloured students attend these schools. Accordingly, Black and colorued students who attend these schools are financially privileged.
By the time we had our children, our careers were established. We were fortunate. Firstly, to send our two children to the best schools that we could afford at that stage when they were growing up. And I mean, my thinking was always, that I would want my children to have it better than I had it when I was growing up as a child. (Participants #3, coloured parents)
Parents see paying for their children’s education as an investment. In addition to paying formal tuition, parents pay for their children to attend educational conferences locally and internationally. Two of the three students discuss travel outside the country, to the United States and other countries. Given the exchange rate, travel from South Africa to the United States is sacrificial. Parents also pay for extracurricular activities such as rugby, debate, and public speaking. Each of the aforementioned is a form of cultural capital, which can be deployed in a variety of fashions to propel students’ futures. This cultural capital is also unavailable in traditionally government-run schools. For this reason, parents sacrificed financially to send their children to private schools. Contrary to other studies, students are not reckless or mindless about the resources they possess and recognize their parents’ sacrifice to send them to the best schools. Participant #7 states her parents sacrificed
…driving fancy cars, getting to go away and spend time with their friends ’cause they just dedicated so much time to all the things we needed them to be there for. They made a lot of financial sacrifices. I have learned not to exploit that, so if you don’t really need something, don’t ask for it because they work so hard and if you said I need something for my parents, I will probably have it by the end of the day or the end of the week. (Participant #7, Black university student)
Similarly, participant #2 states:
My parents were able to afford it. I wouldn’t say by having well-paying jobs, but both of them working hard and sacrificing a lot to put me in those schools because I mean my father is an educator in the community so he knows what happens in the schools and I don’t think he would ever want us to go there. And it’s not to say the teachers are bad or the learning is bad, but it’s just the resources at that school and the resources at the school I went to is completely different and I think that’s where the flaw lies in the education. Though my parents were able to afford it, I was drawn to the bursary my final year of high school so that definitely helped, just helped my parents out in regards to paying the school fee. (Participant #2, coloured university student)
Her parents discuss sacrifice as well:
In order for us to keep them at that school, we had to sacrifice. So, in order for us to go on a holiday, we have to plan it. Everything must be planned and prioritized. Our children were in an accident last year and our car was breaking off, so in order for us to buy a new car, but we had to put the car on hold to make sure they are sorted first. (Participants #3, coloured parents)
Though a car is necessary, they made the difficult choice between two necessities. In addition to finances, parents sacrifice time transporting children for extracurricular activities. They also sacrifice their morals, as participant #5—Black father and retired educator—feels conflicted about having taught in a township school, yet sending his children to Former Model C Schools. Parents sacrifice much because they see their children’s education as an investment.
Students recognize their privileged educational experiences. Two of the three students live in communities proximal to poorer Black or coloured South Africans. Such experiences elucidate their privilege, as they have the proximal poverty as a reference point. Participant #2—a coloured university student—states, “My education was served to me on a silver platter so I honestly cannot complain about it.” Additionally, participant #7 says:
I remember him [dad] specifically taking me to all these events at his school even as a young child I’d see that the school is so different from my school. Even the children here look very shabby and torn clothing. I thought those were only the things I saw on TV and it really opened my eyes to the reality of poverty in our country and that I should count my blessings and consider myself fortunate because there are people really struggling out there. (Participant #7, Black university student)
In addition to structural changes, parents’ financial capital influences students’ university of choice. Accordingly, in alignment with previous examples of middle-class characteristics, students chose their university without major financial constraints. Participant #7 speaks about her parents’ financial capability:
My parents put money away to fund my education, so literally registration and everything was just effortless like we got here, paid for everything registered and everything was sorted. Last year they asked me to look for bursaries and stuff and I was so caught up with school and stuff that I didn’t even bother. I realized I wasted so many opportunities last year in December because I got a distinction for history. When you get a distinction, they have to pay for a module. I wasted so much time and I could have applied for a bursary, but I didn’t ’cause I was doing a lot last year. I realized putting a child through varsity is expensive. You have to give them allowance and everything, so it is a lot they are putting into this. With how I have been performing, I am going to actually look for bursaries now. (Participant #7, Black university student)
While she expresses the importance of bursaries, or financial aid grants, bursaries are not a necessity because she is making satisfactory progress without them. Similarly, participant #2—a coloured university student—mentions having a challenging time with bursaries as well as gaining acceptance to universities because she is coloured and non-poor. Accordingly, she is seen as privileged and not in need of assistance. Though a valid stance, she too is making satisfactory progress without bursaries.
Impact of Resources on Support
Social capital among families is largely internal. Parents’ external social capital is limited given they attended university under apartheid. As previously mentioned, fewer career opportunities existed for first-generation Black and coloured South Africans. Additionally, social relations were restricted, so parents likely possess relationships with Black and coloured people who are clergy, teachers, social workers, and nurses. While this level of social capital is greater than most Black and coloured South Africans, it pales in comparison to the experience of White South Africans. Though external social capital is limited, internal social capital is strong because students possess close ties with their parents. For instance, students were extremely knowledgeable about apartheid and social relations. While some of this knowledge could have been obtained in school, there is a sense children obtain much of their knowledge from their parents’ experiences.
I always think of what they had to endure, the struggles they went through even being at university during apartheid, to go through all of that physical and emotional strain and both come out being very successful. I think that’s very admirable. The manner they handle things and the way they can come out successful despite the setbacks, it’s really inspirational. (Participant #2, coloured university student)
Another facet of internal social capital was the emotional support and advice parents provide for their children. This support and advice appear to be different than a parent simply showing support. This support is rooted in common experience. When speaking about this level of support, participant #2 says, “obviously they have been through this, so they understand the pressure.” Parents did not simply tell students, “I believe in you because you have always been smart. You can do anything you put your mind to.” First-generation university students can likely attest to parents showing support, but not truly understanding the plight of a student. Instead, participant #2’s parents state:
Fortunate for us, we were students once, so we can learn with them and talk to them. We can talk about if she has something to do then she will say to me, mom can I get you to listen to this and can we talk about this and then it’s so nice. (Participants #3, coloured parents)
The mother studied sociology, and the daughter is currently studying sociology. Accordingly, they have conversations about the university process as well as course content. The internal social capital passed from parents has the ability to manifest into external social capital. For instance, participant #2’s mother stresses the importance of networking:
You are on campus. Go, ask your advisors. Don’t sit and wait for somebody to say to you. Do you want to know something, you need to develop that curiosity to want to know more in terms of your development in your degree and where it will lead you. (Participants #3, coloured parents)
She regularly holds this conversation with her daughter. Though the mother recognizes her ability to support her child, she also recognizes her limitations and as a result instructs her daughter to utilize her resources. Though most social capital among families is internal, one instance of external social capital is apparent—relationships with teachers. Participant #5—a Black father, former teacher, and former principal—explains educated parents are able to interact more with teachers, whereas his parents could only receive feedback from teachers. Feedback is different than interaction, as feedback, in the way he describes it, is one-way communication. Two-way communication, or interaction, is an opportunity for parents and teachers to share information about the student in an effort to create the strongest learning opportunity for students. While this sentiment is only directly expressed by participant #5, it seems applicable to other parents in the study because all parents are engaged, highly educated parents.
Though much of the data provide evidence of the benefits of parents’ upward mobility, participant #7—a Black university student—mentions a less positive side to upward mobility. Due to her parents’ success, she was raised by nannies. Due to this experience, she aspires to be wealthy, so she can take time away from work to raise her children. Her experience is not the experience of other participants. However, it is important to note downsides to upward mobility. It is also important to note that, despite the student’s feelings about a nanny, such is a form of support. With the help of a nanny, her parents ensured the welfare of their children. Parents with fewer resources are unable to ensure such support; instead, lower-resourced children provide care for themselves.
Impact of Resources on Aspirations
Parents’ success impacts students’ aspirations. Such is considered social capital as well, as it speaks to the strong interpersonal relationships between parents and children. Parents and students consistently mention conversations and experiences that impact aspirations.
We were always making a way for our struggles and how difficult it was not to make them fearful of the future, but to encourage them actually that what they are given, the opportunities they were given, they can actually dream bigger and go wider and higher than we were able to when we were their age. (Participants #3, coloured parents)
Parents are strategic about encouraging their children to develop high aspirations. Parents mention their inability to dream at younger ages and place value on making sure their children have more opportunities. Sometimes it is not strategic conversations, but significant experiences that influences children’s aspirations. Participant #7 recounts an experience during her mother’s university studies:
I remember very good memories of her working on her [mom’s] assignments and stuff and I always ask how does anyone write so quickly? When am I going to get to write that quickly and she’d give me magazines and stuff like that. I literally taught myself how to read. (Participant #7, Black university student)
Her mother may or may not have purposefully provided these experiences, but they impacted the student’s aspirations. She was able to dream because she saw her mother making academic strides. In discussing the foundation for students’ aspirations, participant #7’s father states his children have become accustomed to a certain lifestyle and as a result are motivated to succeed. Discussions and experiences are powerful. They provide students with deeply rooted reasons for striving for success, as opposed to simply attending university due to their parents’ desires. They recognize their lives will be enhanced and they can achieve their preferred lifestyle.
Impact of Resources on Language
Among other forms of social and cultural capitals, language is a powerful contribution to students’ upward mobility. Fluency in Afrikaans is a cultural resource that functions as a social resource, as it provides entrée into experiences and social circles. After the abolition of apartheid, Afrikaans was no longer the compulsory language of instruction in schools. However, those fluent in Afrikaans continue to receive greater respect and can attend some of the nation’s premier universities that offer instruction in Afrikaans. These premier universities offer instruction in English as well, but according to participants, less support is offered for English-based courses. Parents’ middle-class resources enable students to attain language skills to strengthen their skillset. The language students speak, as well as the manner in which students speak, play a role in social acceptance. Participant #7 says people give her compliments on how she speaks:
“I speak very fluent Afrikaans, which is why I get a lot of respect from my White counterparts most of the time. I have a very close friend of mine who went to a township school. He is such a hard worker and he came from a previously disadvantaged background. When we go to a lot of events like Model United Nations, he doesn’t sound like a lot of us so most of the time he has a lot of trouble getting his thoughts and feelings out. One guy said, you should just stop talking altogether because no one can even know what you are saying” (Participant #7, Black university student).
All the students in the described situation are Black, yet a more privileged Black student scolds another student for speaking differently. The manner in which he speaks deems him less intelligent and worthy of being in a social circle with other Black students. Such is evidence of persistent classism. The engineers of apartheid would be proud, as division was their goal. The system of apartheid still functions twenty-five years after abolition, and functions through a generation who did not even live under apartheid. Furthermore, participant #7 mentions the acceptance by White people due to her fluency in Afrikaans because “an overwhelming majority of South African children don’t go to Model C Schools, so they don’t get to take Afrikaans.” She sees developing fluency in Afrikaans as an opportunity. She feels there is power in speaking Afrikaans. While she is right, there is stigma, among a segment of Black South Africans, around Black people speaking Afrikaans. Some Black South Africans deem Afrikaans as taboo because it is the language of oppressors. Accordingly, some Black people push back by not speaking it, even though they have some competency in it.
Under apartheid, Afrikaans was the language of the power majority. During that time, coloured South Africans grew up speaking Afrikaans as their dominant language while Black South Africans who spoke Afrikaans were likely highly education. It should be noted “highly” educated does not necessarily equate to university level. Black South Africans who attended high school under apartheid were considered highly educated. However, Afrikaans is the language of instruction in Cape Town’s township schools. Cape Town’s coloured South Africans see English as the language of privilege. Accordingly, participants #3 sent their children to Model C Schools, where the language of instruction is English. Accordingly, privileged coloured children are fluent in the nation’s two most powerful languages—English and Afrikaans. Some privileged Black children are fluent in both, but some only know English because Afrikaans is not their dominant cultural language. The difference in dominant language exemplifies the closer social proximity between White and coloured South Africans. Such does not imply equality among White and coloured South Africans, but rather implies that coloured South Africans possessed some privilege in comparison to Black South Africans. Despite shared oppression, the fluency of Afrikaans places coloured people a step above Black people in terms of cultural and social resources. Fluency in Afrikaans sets Black and coloured South Africans apart from those who are not fluent. Most importantly, participant #7’s experience with her friend who attended a township school elucidates parents’ rationale for sending their children to private schools. Language is power, and they want to prepare their children to compete in a competitive, global world.
LASTING IMPRESSIONS OF APARTHEID
Apartheid was carefully engineered. Through it, a successful racial hierarchy persisted in a formal capacity for more than forty-five years. It continues to persist informally, and systemically, twenty-five years after abolition. Student participants are well aware of apartheid’s past and remnants of apartheid in present-day society. Accordingly, participants highlight the many ways Black and coloured South Africans continue to face oppression in residential and educational settings. They also highlight the ways White South Africans are privileged over Black and coloured people. Lastly, they highlight disadvantages Black people continue to face, despite social progression.
Impressions on Second Generation
Apartheid restricted education opportunities. Black and coloured South Africans largely pursued degrees in education, social work, nursing, or theology. Many Black and coloured South Africans attended teaching colleges. Again, these colleges are akin to two-year vocational programs in the United States. A college diploma was the teaching credential for Black and coloured people prior to 1970. According to participants, in the 1970s, Black and coloured South Africans started attaining four-year degrees. Though they were able to attend four-year universities, areas of study were still restricted to the aforementioned. Additionally, university choice was restricted. Certain schools were more expensive, and as a result prohibitive to Black and coloured people. Similarly, certain programs of study were more expensive and prohibitive to Black and coloured people. Accordingly, Black South Africans were prohibited from attending the most prestigious universities and majoring in highly respected/paid career topics. Participant #2 states her mother was accepted into the University of Cape Town, one of the nation’s premier universities, but could not attend due to financial reasons. Her father reports he thought he could only attend the University of the Western Cape—a university designated for Black and coloured South Africans—to major in education. He wanted to pursue math, engineering, or medicine, but could not due to financial reasons. He also states his generation lacked guidance counselors and psychologists. Participant #5—a Black father—reports a lack of mentorship as well. A lack of mentorship prevented the second generation from exploring greater possibilities. There may have been a select few schools that offered additional programs of study for Black and coloured South Africans. Though parents experienced upward mobility due to attending university, their opportunities were severely depressed. For instance, participant #5 did not attend university directly after high school. Lacking the necessary finances to attend university, he worked to save money and paid his way through university. Moreover, members of the second generation who work(ed) in fields are not within their passions. Working in fields is the best out of limited options and provides a stable living.
Impressions on Race Relations
An emergent theme among interviews was the remnants of apartheid in the New South Africa. Accordingly, present-day oppression can be seen in myriad segments of society. Social relations are not completely amicable and fair. Each of the participants spoke about preferential treatment toward White people over Black and coloured people. For instance, White people receive preferential treatment in residential services. Participant #1—a Black university student—says people with “Black-sounding” names have fewer options when renting residential spaces. According to participants #6 and #3—a Black mother and coloured parents, respectively—White people also receive preferential treatment as customers. Furthermore, White people do not have to wait in lines and can speak to bankers and other customer service representatives on a first name basis. Black and coloured people have to use “Mr./Ms.” and the representative’s last name. Additionally, Black and coloured people are harassed by security officers in stores. Participants #3 and #7 speak about White people’s preferential treatment in education settings. Participants #3—coloured parents—speak specifically about one of their daughters, who attended a predominantly White university in the Western Cape, feeling the need to prove her existence at the university. Moreover, participant #7—a Black university student—discusses the role finances play in simplifying one’s educational experience. White people commonly possess enough finances to own a car and drive to campus for evening tutoring or lectures. Black and coloured students either lack transportation and/or have less flexibility due to other life obligations such as work and/or taking care of family. In this instance, a specific person is not responsible for giving preferential treatment, but rather social circumstances facilitate White students’ education experience. Participant #7 also says Black students may be the face of a political or economic entity, but they are essentially puppets with little to no power. Believe it or not, she was critical of Nelson Mandela for such, while many people, worldwide, revere his legacy. Though apartheid has been abolished, its tenets were woven so tightly into the fabric of society, its oppression lives on.
While most participants discussed interracial relationships—between White people and Black or coloured people—that persist in the New South Africa—participants also spoke to unequal privilege between Black and coloured people. Participant #6—a Black mother—states Black people receive more privilege than coloured people. Participant #2—a coloured university student—states coloured people receive more privilege. Finally, participant #7—a Black university student—acknowledges Black people receive more privilege than coloured people. As seen in the multiple viewpoints about which group receives more privilege, there is no absolute truth. Black South Africans’ feelings about coloured South Africans receiving more privilege are rooted in the times of apartheid, when coloured South Africans formally possessed a slight level of privilege in comparison to Black South Africans. Coloured people’s feelings about Black people receiving more privilege are rooted in policies created for the New South Africa, in response to previous policies that privileged coloured South Africans over Black South Africans. These policies serve as reparations to Black South Africans because they were assigned the lowest social position during apartheid. Essentially, policies that strive to assist Black South Africans disadvantage coloured South Africans because of their previous privilege. It is challenging to decide if participants’ views are rooted in reality or perception, but perception is important. One’s perceptions shape his/her beliefs, actions, and overall social experiences. When social perceptions of privilege exist, some facet of society is responsible for citizens’ perceptions, and the government must address these perceptions. Whether it is perception or reality, feelings still exist and are likely to result in some level of disdain or social distance. Such disdain or social distance supports the previous goal of separation and continues to separate people who have more in common than not.
This study contributes to the growing body of literature on the global Black middle class. The middle class tends to receive less scholarly attention, as lower-resourced citizens are often chronicled instead. Accordingly, an absence of the global Black middle class could be assumed, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, because Africa is seen as a continent with little development and prosperity. South Africa is just one country developing a growing Black middle class. Future research could examine intergenerational mobility in other sub-Saharan African countries.
This study casts attention on a new, objective Black middle class in South Africa, and though there has been social progress since the abolition of apartheid, there are still systematic issues as a result of apartheid. The members of the Black middle class possess a sense of hope that was incomprehensible during apartheid. This hope has fueled parents’ efforts to prepare their children for success through strategic educational planning. Similarly, McEwan et al. (2015) found parents would make sacrifices to provide high-quality educational opportunities. As a result of their parents’ sacrifice, children show demonstrated potential. Their aspirations are not lofty. They are a result of participating in educational and extracurricular activities that lead to professional opportunities. Students recognize their privilege and are grateful for their experiences because they are aware poorer students have fewer opportunities and poorer students are less hopeful about the future. For this reason, each student appears to be high achieving and involved in a significant number of activities/organizations. They do not squander any experiences because they recognize their parents’ sacrifices. Additionally, parents serve as significant support systems due to their university experience.
As mentioned, students and parents discuss issues with racism, segregation, and race relations during apartheid and in the New South Africa. They recognize, in the absence of apartheid, their families would be further along in terms of education, working in one’s field of choice, and income/wealth. However, despite the past and present-day challenges, the second generation is prepared for the future. They possess many of the attributes their parents lacked due to systematic oppression. While the methodology in this study differs from most studies and examines a facet of the Black middle class that is understudied, results corroborate many characteristics found in the middle class by colleagues—self-sufficiency, responsibility, social mobility, and being happy, free, and aspirational (Phadi and Ceruti 2011); having choice and opportunity, and being empowered, capacitated, and free to pursue personal goals and aspirations (Burger et al. 2017); as well as having increased agency and empowerment (Burger et al. 2015). For those skeptical about whether or not the abolition of apartheid has had any impact, it is clear the first generation did not feel the aforementioned sentiments, yet the second generation feels each of the aforementioned sentiments.
As previously mentioned, Iqani (2015) reports on many media representations of the South African Black middle class as immature and incapable of fulfilling the South African dream. Scholarly inquiry resulted in a diametrically opposed narrative. Rivero et al. (2003) claim the middle class generally grows shortly after the start of a democracy and question whether it will continue growing. While the study at hand cannot confirm such due to its qualitative nature, participants show upward mobility in comparison to their parents. Future studies should quantitatively examine the sustenance/growth of the Black middle class to see if growth is statistically significant.
Technical Assistance—Valecia Hanna (undergraduate research assistant), Kamaria Massey (graduate research assistant), and Notchelle Pierre (undergraduate research assistant); Recruited Participants—Dr. Marcelle Mentor and Kearabetswe Mokoene (graduate student).
Generous funding from the Office of Academic Affairs at Morgan State University made this project possible.
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 “Coloured” is a complex term that can be defined as mixed race ancestry that is nuanced and sometimes disagreed upon due to generational preferences and struggles with hegemonic structures; similar to some Americans of African descent preferring Black American while others prefer African American; either way, it is a group with an identifiable mixture of cultural practices.
Omari Jackson, Morgan State University