Stigmatization and the Complex Lives of Single Middle-Class Women from Soweto
Lesego Linda Plank and Grace Khunou
Economic class position is not only significant for thinking about politics and for discourses on democracy, it is also significant even when thinking about everyday life situations, such as intimacy. In thinking about the global Black middle class with regards to single Black middle-class women in South Africa and the United States, as indicated by Marsh, Darity, Cohen, Casper, and Salters (2007), it is clear that middle classness has an important impact on how these women think about and how they do or do not engage in intimacy. Through a qualitative study on the experiences of single Black middle-class women from Soweto, it was revealed that middle class status for women impacts intimate relationships positively and negatively. In environments where notions of men as providers for women and children are centered, intimate relations between women and men shift when women earn more than their male counterparts and choose to center their careers. As a result women, in Soweto find themselves limited to approved paths of motherhood and heterosexual partnering, and when they chose to deviant they are often met with stigmatization.
Black middle class; single women; Soweto; stigmatization
Men and women have been socialized to behave in different ways in society and in romantic relationships. Zuo (2004) contends that women and men are expected to perform gender in a manner that pleases society. For example, women are expected to be submissive, gentle, kind, and obedient, and men are expected to provide and protect the household (Connell and Pearse 2015). In the same way, women are portrayed as reproductive beings and nurturers of the home, while men are expected to be the head of the household and assume the breadwinner role (Zuo 2004; Blackstone 2003; Khunou 2006).
With the growing numbers of women entering the labor market and accessing higher education, the idea of men being the breadwinner has been challenged. This is because of the rise of the female breadwinner role (Gwagwa 1998; Blackstone 2003; Marthur-Helm 2006). As a result of this shift, we also see more and more women of marrying age opting to remain single. It is, however, a challenge for men and general society to accept that women can exist without depending on the provision of men, marriage, and general heterosexual partnering.
Additionally, women who are powerful, career driven, and strong-willed face disapproval from society. This is because of the perception that these qualities should be portrayed by men and not women (Casale 2004; Marthur-Helm 2006). These women are constantly disapproved of and are believed to be controlling and dominant over their partners. These changes in the economic position of women have not shifted societal expectations of women with regards to normative ideas of what it means to be a woman. When you couple economic stability and single womanhood, you see increased policing of women through multiple processes, including gender-based violence (Mosoetsa 2011; Plank 2018, and economic abuse (Khunou 2012). This article argues that the choice to pursue excellence through educational attainment and in the workplace is hard for single Black middle-class women because they are stigmatized in their communities and families for not conforming to the norm.
SINGLE WOMEN, INTIMACY, AND MIDDLE-CLASSNESS
In South Africa the breadwinner role debate is still complex, particularly in Black families. Traditional gender norms are still preserved in many households, such that even if women earn more than men or are the sole providers in their households, they would not be regarded as breadwinners. In such contexts, men are considered breadwinners even if they are unemployed and reliant on earnings by women (Gwagwa 1998; Mosoetsa 2011; Khunou 2012). This is especially true in situations where women have attained the middle-class position in terms of educational attainment, occupation, and income, and so have self-identified as middle class (Alexander et al. 2013; Southall 2015; Khunou 2015; Khunou et al. 2020).
Single middle-class women are constantly stigmatized. They are perceived as lonely, unhappy, and dissatisfied (Fraser 2003; Piatkowski 2012; Van Der Watt 2015). This is because it is believed that intimate relationships provide purpose and satisfaction for human beings (Johnson, Kent, and Yale 2012) and even more so for women. However, it cannot be ignored that a number of women spend their lives single. But because of how patriarchy works, women and men are expected to be an item in order for patriarchal practices and beliefs to be implemented and preserved.
Single women’s class status is regarded as a major downfall for them, because their class status intimidates men and patriarchal principles. Thus, they are constantly blamed when their intimate relationships are terminated (DePaulo and Trimberger 2008; Khunou 2012). Society perceives single women as not being “women enough,” especially when they are also childless. However, it must be highlighted that single women are no different from other women who are married; the difference would be their marital status, but they are also still women (Fraser 2003; DePaulo and Trimberger 2008).
Single women are continually stereotyped, stigmatized, and discouraged, and regularly subjected to forms of discrimination by society because they are single (Fraser 2003). Most single successful women tend to focus on their careers and education and delay marriage and having children (Marsh et al. 2007; Jones 2010). Despite academic and career achievements, single women are made to feel as if they are useless and unsuccessful because they are unmarried or childless, or, worse, they are single mothers (Van Der Watt 2015). Such stigmatization continues because marriage and having a family is prioritized in conceptions of womanhood over being a single financially successful woman (Cherlin 2004; Marsh et al. 2007).
When it comes to intimate relationships, it is difficult to define the term “single.” For instance, the complexity of this term stems from a variety of definition, such as the legal definition, which states that a single person is a person who is not legally married (Van De Watt 2015). This definition becomes problematic because it includes various people who might be separated, engaged, cohabitating, in dating relationships, or taking a break in their romantic relationship (DePaulo and Trimberger 2008). The legal definition thus ignores social definitions around romantic relationships. It normalizes marriage as an essential institution, which determines the marital status for people. As a result, if you are not married, you are single.
However, in certain societies, such as South Africa, younger women who are in their mid-20s to mid-30s are likely to face stigmatization and are prone to dissatisfaction with life compared to women who are older than them (Van Der Watt 2015). Owing to established norms and expectations from loved ones, it becomes difficult for young women to be content with being single. This is because families often prioritize marriage and children (DePaulo and Morris 2005). A number of women now spend most of their adult life single. This might be because they are widows or divorcees, some are scared to fall in love, others remain single for the sake of their children, or as a choice (DePaulo and Morris 2005; Darrington et al. 2005; Sarkisian and Gerstel 2008).
Singlehood is not just a trend examined in the Western or developed countries. According to the 2013 World Fertility Report for 192 countries, the number of people who have been always single increased from 15 percent in the 1990s to 25 percent in the 2000s across all countries, including developing countries. Additionally, 38 percent of women and about 57 percent of men in the 2000s had reached their 20s without being married (DESA 2014). This shows that the prioritization of marriage and having a family has been gradually decreasing, and more people are staying single (Darrington et al. 2005).
For instance, in South Africa, when a woman marries, she no longer belongs to her maiden family; she changes her surname and is expected to continue the legacy of her husband’s family (Mazibuko and Umejesi 2015). Married women are sometimes not even allowed to make decisions pertaining to their maiden family. In many cultures in South Africa, when a girl child gets married, her relatives normally admonish her, making her aware that she is no longer their daughter and she belongs to her husband’s family (Mfono 2008). This shows that women are not often reserved a place in this patriarchal society (Priyam, Menon, and Banerjee 2009). Nevertheless, with single women they maintain family ties, some do not even move out of their family home, and ensure a level of familial stability. Thus it is argued that they play an important role in strengthening family ties and communal relations (Rudwick and Posel 2014). When they are middle-class, their income gives them the economic freedom to not pursue marriage and provide support and connection to their family of origin.
A BRIEF DISCUSSION OF METHOD
This article is drawn from a larger study on the Black middle class and intimacy among single women from Soweto. The purpose of the research was to answer the question: What are the experiences of single black middle-class women from Soweto in intimate relationships? To answer the study question, snowball sampling was utilized to select twenty participants between the ages of 25 and 50 years in January 2017. The study participants all lived in and around Soweto (Soweto is an abbreviation for South Western Townships). Soweto and many other townships in South Africa were created during apartheid to serve the labor needs of White families and employers in Johannesburg. It is home to over 1.58 million people, mostly Black individuals, with unemployment rates of over 30 percent (Vuba 2019). Soweto is one of the major residential areas in South Africa dominated by Blacks (Africans) (Kros 2010). Soweto was a suitable research site for a study on the Black middle class as it has already been a site for other studies on the middle class, including the important work Class is Soweto (italicize) (Alexander et al. 2013).
The study informing this article used a qualitative research approach. This approach allowed participants to express themselves and share their experiences from their own perspective. Given the salient qualities of qualitative research some of the participants found the interview process therapeutic, as many had experienced multiple forms of abuse in their intimate relationships. For example, Lucy, one of the participants shared that:
Yes, he was all sorts of abusive, financially, emotionally. He would just speak, some things I didn’t like…. I didn’t like speaking about this though, now I find talking heals hey, even now I feel like I am in my own therapy session. (Lucy, 2017)
The above quote supports what qualitative researchers argue, including Martins (2005), who shared that qualitative research provides the ability to interact personally with respondents. This allows participants to explore and express their feelings about and understandings of the phenomenon under investigation. The data from the participants was collected through in-depth interviews. All the interviews were recorded, lasted for an hour to an hour and a half, and were conducted by the first author of this article. The interviews were conducted at multiple locations, including the restaurant at the Maponya Mall, in and around Soweto. The interviews followed an interview guide, which included questions about biographical data like age, education level, and income, and then moved to open-ended questions like, which holiday destinations do you visit? Where do you buy your clothes and groceries? What are your reasons for being single? What are your dating preferences?
Ethical principles of providing safety, beneficence, and protection to participants were employed throughout the study. Before commencing, the study received ethical clearance from the Faculty of Humanities ethics committee at the University of Johannesburg. During recruitment for participation in the study, a detailed explanation of ethical considerations was provided through the study information sheet, and once all prospective participants had agreed to participate in the study, they were required to sign a consent form to indicate they understood their rights and the ethical principles guiding the study.
The participants of this study self-identified as Black middle-class and were all employed in professional jobs. They had all completed grade 12, and all had a postschool qualification with one working on a degree at the time of the interview. According to conceptions of middle class (Burger et al. 2015), they were all entry-level middle-class with incomes ranging from R10 010 to R44 948 ($557.02 to $2,501.18) per month.
DISCUSSION OF FINDINGS
The findings presented here illustrate that single Black middle class women from Soweto are problematized for being education-oriented, having well-paying jobs, and being financially stable instead of prioritizing heterosexual partnering. The findings below are presented in two sections. The first discusses how these women are forced to comply with normative ideas of women needing to be dependent on men and in heterosexual relationships through the use of insults and derogatory terms. Second, the article discusses how stigma is used to define women with regards to their choice to remain childless. This article shows that women who are focused on their careers and economic mobility are regarded as unwomanly, as they are perceived as not having qualities which are traditionally associated with women because they are defying breadwinner norms.
Forced to Comply: Insults and Derogatory Naming
Even though marriage age and marriage patterns have been shifting in recent years, women who do not marry are still viewed negatively in society. This negative view is voiced through the use of stigma and name-calling. For instance, for Nandi, a university graduate who worked as an account’s manager at the time of the interview, being called the derogatory term “Lefetwa,” which means that one has missed out on marriage, similar to “spinster” and “old maid” (Makhudu 2010), was most painful as it tended to erase her successes. Nandi would be called lefetwa by people in her neighborhood because she was unmarried. This is what she had to say:
I would be called “Lefetwa.” In English what “Lefetwa” would be is when all my peers are married, and I am the only one left who’s not married. They do not think that I am able to take care of my daughter, and I am successful, but they just care that I am unmarried. It is as if I am not woman enough, nx! (Nandi, February 3, 2017)
Despite Nandi’s class status and ability to financially support her child, her success is disregarded because she is an unmarried single mother. To illustrate her frustration with the double standard of her society Nandi says, “they just care that I am unmarried. It is as if I am not woman enough.” This is a frustration felt by many women who have achieved success outside of the home. Nandi is bound to feel less of a woman if she is constantly reminded that her peers have left her behind. According to her society, when a woman is married, she is then regarded as a real woman.
The same sentiment is shared by Patricia, a 25-year-old woman with a university degree, who argued that:
It’s hard to find relationships—well, it’s hard for me to find relationships. I think I put so much emphasis on the importance of making myself successful. I needed to study and get my degree. This was for me a way for me to stand on myself and be able to have something on my own. To reach the ultimate goal for me, I wanted to do it on my own and not depend on my family or men and it is just a belief I had for my entire life. But because I have attained all these great things, it is very hard finding a man, because men don’t want women like me. (Patricia, January 22, 2017)
For Patricia, focusing on herself meant that she is not woman enough, and as a result she can not find a partner. Patricia has worked hard for her independence because she wanted to attain it without the assistance of her family or a man. But with all her hard work and accomplishments, it is difficult for her to find a man, and she argues that this is because she has focused on developing herself. With the growing link between education and success, young black women have the power to choose to go to school first and to grow in their careers.
Nandi and Patricia’s experiences are echoed in the study by DePaulo and Morris (2005) based on single women in a patriarchal society; these scholars maintain that unmarried single mothers are constantly stigmatized by society. DePaulo and Morris (2005) argue that, in most societies, marriage is regarded as an essential requirement to show success. This shows that despite the means of women entering labor markets and being in spaces that have been historically dominated by men, what defines a woman is marriage and reproduction.
Society fails in teaching women to be independent and to equip themselves in order for them to reach their full potential; instead, society trains women that the key to being successful is being married. This fuels gender inequality and the disapproval of women who choose to stay single and childless. If one does not adhere to these societal norms, one would then be regarded as a lefetwa, like Nandi.
Single Status and Motherhood Used to Discredit Other Achievements
In her book, The Feminist Manifesto, Adichie (2017) suggests that mothers should teach their daughters that marriage is not an achievement, and that young girls should not aspire to be married but should rather find aspiration in themselves. Adichie (2017) maintains that girl children are conditioned to believe that marriage is the ultimate source of life, and boy children are never taught to aspire to marriage; this unequal teaching perpetuates gender inequality and the abuse of women in heterosexual partnerships.
One of the important factors shared by all the study participants was the fact that they made a conscious choice to create time for their success in both education and the workplace. However, what they all did not bargain for was how their achievements created problems for them in their workplace, in previous intimate relationships, and in how society viewed them and related to them. For example, Lindiwe, a university graduate working in sales, shared that as a Black middle-class woman, she faces stigmatization because she is unmarried and childless at the age of 27. Lindiwe mentioned that she is constantly reminded that time is running out for her. She is told that she is getting older and will have complications when she has children at a later stage. Birrittieri (2005) asserts that because of untrue biological theories, a number of women have been advised to have children at an earlier age to avoid complications. Lindiwe said the following:
I belong to a Zulu family, after umemulo [defined below], they believe that one should start having children and getting married. They always ask me “why aren’t you having a kid by now? You will have complications in terms of having a baby, you will be crying alone, and your diaphragm will be rigid.” They make reference to my age, being 27 years old and unmarried and not having a baby. But that doesn’t bother me, time will come. There are many technological ways today, so I am not really bothered. I am currently focusing on advancing myself. (Lindiwe, January 26, 2017)
Umemulo is a Zulu ceremony that celebrates the coming of age of a young Zulu woman who has reached the age of 21 years (Ngidi 2012; Liamputtong 2016). Umemulo is a ceremonial affirmation that one has reached a stage at which the girl child is regarded as sexually and physically matured for marriage and reproduction (Ngidi 2012). Once the ceremony is performed, women are pressured to start a family of their own (Ngidi 2012; Liamputtong 2016). This expectation is also shared by Lindiwe’s family, who believe that Lindiwe should have long been a mother and someone’s wife.
However, Lindiwe is not bothered because of technological advancements such as IVF (in vitro fertilization), which is regarded as the most efficient form of reproductive technology. It is effective in assisting women to become pregnant at ages that were historically thought to bring challenges. The IVF process involves the egg of the woman being fertilized at the laboratory and then implanted into the uterus of the woman (Van Blerkom and Gregory 2011). IVF would allow Lindiwe to have a child at any time, when she chooses. She also believes that the time will come for her to have children, and it will be determined by her. Lindiwe was clear that she is choosing to focus on advancing herself. It is important for women to focus on improving themselves and advancing themselves (Marsh et al. 2007; Jones 2010; Adichie 2017). Through her being middle class, she has been exposed to the idea that she will be able to have children on her own terms and timeline.
On a similar note, Dini, who has a diploma and was working as a receptionist at the time of the interview, indicated that she is stigmatized because she does not have children yet. She said the following:
Yes, yes! They told me today, “Dini, you are about to turn 30, you need to start having kids, because you will have complications as your bones are becoming tight making it hard for you. You need to think about marriage and move out of home, the house belongs to your brothers and they are the rightful owners.” I was hurt hey! I mean I want to leave home because I can, not because I am forced to get married and stuff. I can afford my own place, but how they make it sound, it is as if I am not supposed to stay for long there because of my gender. They should be telling me to leave because I need to grow and be independent. (Dini, January 23, 2017)
At the time of the interview, Dini was about to turn 30, unmarried, and living at home. Dini mentions in the interview she is the only girl child at home and is the eldest child. She shares in the above quote how she was told she needs to move out as she is a woman and that her family home belongs to her brothers. What Dini does here is show the complexities of gender dynamics in inheritance among children and households. As a girl child, despite her seniority, she is expected to get married and leave her maiden home while her brothers inherit the family household.This shows how the patriarchy continues to be used to position men and women unequally in society. Boy children are the rightful heirs, and they are most likely to inherit the property left by their parents while girl children are left without a place to belong.
Additionally, Dini’s experiences also illustrate how women police each other in order to adhere to societal expectations. Dini’s friends and her mother are the ones who remind her that she is getting old and needs to start having children. Dini, like Lindiwe, is reminded that delaying having children will cause complications for her. Families and communities believe that young women want to get married and to have children (Marsh et al. 2007), without actually considering what it is that they really want. What happens if Dini and Lindiwe do not want to have children or get married? Do they have a choice at all in the matter? What is problematic in the stories shared by Dini and Lindiwe is that they are not asked whether they want to have children or not; they are merely reminded that the biological clock is ticking.
Dini feels it would have been better if she was told she needs to move out of her parents’ house for growth purposes—for her to find independence—not because she needs to get married and have children in order for her to fulfil her purpose. Adichie (2017), in The Feminist Manifesto, writes about how women should be taught to be as independent as men. She argues that women should be treated as individuals and should not be measured according to gender roles, and she believes this would allow women to reach their full potential. Furthermore, men are never restricted; they are encouraged to be whoever they want to be, whenever they want to be it. Adichie (2017) asserts that women should be given more room and less rules, like men, and, lastly, women should be taught to fend for themselves and be independent.
On the other hand, Mpilo shared that she is a victim of stigmatization at her workplace. She feels being single is used as a reason for her to do extra work at her workplace. She is constantly told that because she does not have a family of her own, it is important for her to work overtime. She said:
Especially at work! Like there’s something that needs to be done after hours, and they will be like “Oh Mpilo would be around, she’s got nothing to do, she will be around—she’s got no one to go to, she doesn’t have a family, she is not married!” Of course I would stand up for myself and say “No, I won’t do it, my parents need me!” (Mpilo, January 25, 2017)
At work she will be asked to do extra work and work late since her colleagues think that because she doesn't have a family, she has more time.. Mpilo is perceived as if she has all the time on her hands to dedicate to her work because she is single and childless. Jones’s (2010) study reveals how employers assume that single female employees have no life of their own. Because they are not married or romantically involved, it is assumed these women have ample free time, which they should devote to their work. Like Mpilo, the women in Jones’s (2010) study are expected to stay behind and work late, work a night shift, travel for work without prior notice, or take work home.
Mpilo also added that she is stigmatized by her own relatives. She is blamed for being educated and successful and is regarded as a controlling person in her relationships. This stereotype that she is controlling because she is educated is then used to explain why her relationships end. Adichie (2017) demonstrates that society is not welcoming to women who are powerful. These women are constantly blamed for being single and are even policed by other women. Single successful women are always associated with not being humble, being undomesticated, and being unkind because they are powerful (Hakim 2006; Edin and Kefalas 2011; Adichie 2017). This is what she had to say:
Even with my relatives hey, my aunt, she feels I am the problem in the relationship because I am educated and I work, and that I am just difficult in the relationships, hence I am single. What if it is not my fault though? Because it is not hey! (Mpilo, January 25, 2017)
Unfortunately, Mpilo is stigmatized for being single from both sides of her personal and work life. Furthermore, Mpilo mentions that her relatives blame her for being single. Her career and educational advancements are seen as the reasons she is perceived as the difficult one in the relationships, despite the evidence that her previous partner was the problematic one. For Mpilo to speak of her aunt as the one who would say that to her signifies a generational difference. Older women maintain the belief that women should not be more advanced than men. The older generation must be taught to understand that it is okay for women to earn and be more educated than their male counterparts.
However, for Kamogelo, a 26-year-old who worked as a sales consultant and was at university part-time at the time of the interview, stipulated that because of her age, she hardly gets stigmatized by older people, even in her society. Her neighbors and her older generation in her family believe that she is still young and has all the time in the world to find a partner. She just needs to concentrate on advancing herself. In most societies, it is acceptable when women who are below 25 years of age are childless and unmarried. They are unlikely to be stigmatized because it is believed they are still at the right age to search for compatible partners (DePaulo and Trimberger 2008). Kamogelo stated:
I am young! They expect me to find myself. For my family and neighbors, a relationship it is not that important. They believe that there is a lot expected out of me. So being childless and unmarried for now is not a problem. It’s just my cousins, similar age group, they feel I am crazy. Like they think I am not running in the same race as them, they are outgoing, in relationships and I am a total opposite of that. I think for me it had come to a point where I had to step away from them and find myself because having to try to fit in was not working. (Kamogelo, February 11, 2017)
Kamogelo’s experiences clearly indicate how age is relative. Most participants who mentioned that they were constantly reminded that time is running out were in their late 20s or 30s. Kamogelo states that she does not face any stigma from the older generation among her family and neighbors because she is still young; this is because ta lot is expected from her with regards to educational attainment and work-related success. Maybe when she is above a certain age and still single, they would have a problem. Kamogelo’s experiences of being less stigmatized for being single is similar to what Ntoimo and Isiugo-Abanihe (2013) debate in their study, in which they argue that in African countries such as Nigeria, elderly unmarried women are more prone to being stigmatized compared to the younger generation. This is because they are thought of as defying the cultural norms of reproduction (Ntoimo and Isiugo-Abanihe 2013).
Kamogelo also shows the dynamics of age within her family between the older generation and the younger generation. Her cousins, who are in the same age group as she is, tend to discriminate and judge her because she is still single and does not have children like them. She mentions that her personality clashes with her cousins because they are more outgoing and in relationships, and she is the total opposite. Kamogelo tried fitting in, and she could not anymore because it was not working for her. The older generation in her family is comfortable with who Kamogelo is, but because her own generation finds it odd that she is still single at 26 years of age, she has to conform in order for her to be accepted by her cousins.
This demonstrates how peer pressure influences the decisions people make with regards to how they live their lives. Many people get married and start having children at a younger age because of the pressure from their own peers who are a similar age to them. Kamogelo wants something different in her life. She wants to focus on her progress rather than being in a romantic relationship or having children. Even though there is nothing wrong with being in a relationship, there should not be pressure to be in one; it is important for each individual to be given the choice. This is equally true for having children, where women should be given space to make this decision without pressure.
Societal norms regard marriage and having children as important aspects of social success for women. This expectation is true even when women have clearly chosen to follow a different path. This article has illustrated that when women focus on educational attainment and financial success, they are stigmatized, and their womanhood is reduced as they are seen as challenging normative values. This article contributes an important lens for examining experiences of the global middle class with regards to intimacy and how middle classness challenges normative gender roles.
Future work on the Black middle class can expand the work presented here and look at the challenges experienced by single Black middle class women and how such stigmatization hinders the upward mobility of Black women. Such research can look at these issues from a policy point of view with the aim of facilitating processes to empower Black women further so upward mobility is enhanced.
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 Apartheid engineering was built on racial division. So townships were created to divide the Black population into apartheid racial categories of African, Colored, and Indian. Although this was the intention of apartheid, we find in Soweto mostly Africans and a limited number of Coloreds. It is important to note that in this article the term “Black” means those who identify as African.
 Maponya Mall is one of the biggest shopping centres in Soweto. It has various food outlets such as Nando’s, News Café, Tavern Restaurant, and McDonalds. Retail shops would include Pick n Pay Hyper, Woolworths, Virgin Active, and the Ster-Kinekor cinema complex. The Department of Home Affairs is also found at the mall. Maponya Mall was opened on September 27, 2007, for the benefit of locals in Soweto, but it also signifies the growth of the Black middle class in Soweto (Makura 2008). Richard Maponya is known as a business giant in South Africa, as his entrepreneurial skills date back to the 1980s when he made a name for himself as a Black businessman during the apartheid era (Makura 2008). Maponya, during apartheid, was perceived as a Black middle-class man. Even though Maponya faced hurdles during apartheid, when his business premises faced a number of attacks by the apartheid police (Makura 2008), he was determined to become a successful Black man.
 In South Africa, a diploma is a university or college qualification, it is below a Bachelor degree though.
Lesego Linda Plank, University of Johannesburg
Grace Khunou, University of Johannesburg