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The Rise Of The Middle Class In Africa

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The Rise Of The Middle Class In Africa

Now they are everywhere across the continent: Africa’s middle classes are here to stay. But they don’t support the arts, only themselves; and the lower classes don’t like this attitude one bit, reports Thembi Mutch.

As a poet, an artist, i share myself, I tell my truth, I reconcile my demons: as artists we are mirrors of society, we generate the questions that need to be asked, if I am ready to ask the question, society is asking it too.” Betty Muragori is a vibrant, articulate performance poet, writer, consultant and coach, and a member of Africa’s new middle classes.

“I think we have to acknowledge that here, in Kenya, the new leaders didn’t really overturn the colonial model,” Muragori continues. “They stepped into the trappings of privilege, and carried on. We live in comfortable suburbs. Yet we have terrible slums on our doorstep. It’s about comfort and exclusion, did we really dismantle it?

“It’s like you’ve been smelling the cooking, you’ve been standing at the kitchen door, and now that door is open. You go in, and you think, this is what I desire, so you straighten your hair, you change yourself, you call yourself ‘wrong’ so you can now step into this world you’ve spent your life looking at.”

Any debate about class, aspirations, improvement and consumption here in East Africa generates a huge vibrant discussion. Dissecting whether or not increased incomes and appetites equal a treacherous slide towards adopting Western (or colonial) attitudes, is inevitable.
As Dr Rosemary Okoth remarks: “Defining the middle class is intensely problematic, arguably our upper classes are our political leaders who have money and power, to which the middle classes aspire. This is a fluid term, when they are out of power they will be back in the matatu (the minibus, public transport) and borrowing money again. Is that who we aspire to be?”

The lack of role models for the new middle class and the lack of parameters for the discussion is evident: Is it about leadership, obligations, or tribe?

Says Okoth: “What is so interesting about Tanzania is that it is irrelevant where Nyerere came from. That is an amazing achievement, that the term ‘tribe’ is inconsequential in creating a true nation.”

Young Tanzanians, however, are far removed from the socialism and ubuntu of “Baba Wa Taifa” (Father of the Nation) President Julius Nyerere. They are immersed in Blackberry phones, bling, Barbie Girl on the Radio, SMS connectivity. Ten years ago, this sort of Tanzanian did not exist. Julius Nyerere actively discouraged middle-class consumption, business or entrepreneurism: in the socialist model, we were all equal.Is this rapid thrust towards acquisition healthy? What is being sidelined in the process? Certainly academics, teachers and artists, those who are responsible for creating the next generation of the middle class, do not have salaries commensurate with their achievements.

In this new climate, businessmen are rewarded, not poets. Geoffrey Macharia, a Kenyan IT specialist, says: “I grew up with Ngugi wa Thiong’o, with Chinua Achebe, this forms my identity, my roots. All this investment creates a class of people who have disposable income, but still, the arts must remain free, and not objective-driven, or determined by the availability of resources. Cultural identity comes from the ‘software’, the arts of society.”

Out on the streets, surveying any major capital – Mombasa, Kampala, Arusha, Nairobi or Dar es Salaam – the profligacy of malls, luxury apartments, office blocks, and hotels springing up is striking and alarming. Who is building this stuff? Who is it for?

There appears to be a projected fantasy lifestyle that we will be living in an endless American-type consumption fetish loop. What lies beneath the exuberant boasts that “we’ve never had it so good here in East Africa” is a slow and stealthy obliteration of public space, of cultural and other discussion of what society is, and what society is doing. Right now, there is a huge public debate in Uganda regarding the demolition of the only National Museum for a commercial 60, yes 60, floor building called the East African Trade Centre.

There is certainly a huge need for more dialogue between those who work in the arts, and those who work in business.

The sponsorship of the arts by large corporations so prevalent in South Africa is new in East Africa. Kenya’s Safaricom (part of the global Vodacom group, which overall has a progressive approach to the arts) does support regular excellent classical concerts and other cultural projects. But for larger arts events, like the Sauti za Busara Festival in Zanzibar, funding questions are ongoing. The festival is a cultural counterpoint to the flashy hotels springing up. Director Yusuf Mahmoud says: “The Sauti za Busara festival brings a significant boost to the local economy. All the hotels around Stone Town are fully booked around festival time, it’s difficult to get local flights and ferry tickets; taxi drivers are busy, shops are full and local traders are all smiling.

“The number of visitors to Zanzibar in February has increased by more than 400% since the festival started. People of different races, religions, political parties and beliefs mingle with each other. Yet at the same time we really struggle to persuade corporate Tanzania to sponsor this crucial festival so that it can continue.”

Arthur Ashton, a Tanzanian who is in the import and export business, says: “We in East Africa are expanding at an incredible rate on all fronts. Land ownership, mining, trading, transport, you name it; there isn’t a single sector that isn’t expanding, and with it the emerging middle class, and their voracious appetite for consumer stuff is growing. Democracy appears to equal the ability to purchase, to own. Equality is now a new Mercedes Benz.”

Koshi Sampi and his brother Ravi, from Nairobi, Kenya, and in their early 30s, still see great opportunities in Tanzania. “Arusha is only three hours away on the Pan East African Highway, but it’s behind Nairobi in some ways, in terms of manufacturing and investment, and the drop in prices of commodities like tea, coffee and mineral resources on the world market has affected us.

“But all the same, compared to Kenya, there is so much potential for developing manufacturing here. Textiles, tyres, pharmaceuticals. All the things we have got already in Nairobi.”

They are sceptical about the new middle class: “They are ostentatious, building big marble houses and showing off their wealth, the new middle class, but they’re hoarding, and they are not generous; we need to get to a point where the wealth is spread out a bit – into restaurants, jazz clubs, theatre, culture, like London and Nairobi, we are still a long way off that.”

For the bigger businessmen, their concerns are economic, not artistic. Says Koshi: “Actually, whilst there is the fact that international firms and banks are moving into East Africa like never before, we need to stem the flood of cheap imports, by imposing higher import duties, like India has, otherwise we will get swamped with cheap goods, and lose sight of quality.”

But the cheap goods have a market: for the first time a whole range of “stuff” (the market is brimming with cheap kitchen goods, radios, unbelievable numbers of hardware shops, and cheap imported clothes) is available to the poorer sections of society. Tanzania, like Uganda and Kenya, has over 70% of its working population in the informal sector. Unemployment figures are notoriously unreliable here, but stand, conservatively estimated, at 50% in the three countries. The description “informal economy” means a number of things: people selling combs, cheap padlocks, Chinese radios, carrying everything on their backs… or the women in the market, all selling the vegetables they bought at the auction that morning.  Arthur Ashton is philosophical: “The problem is greed: this new middle class are greedy, and all this consumption puts a massive strain on resources.”

Okoth is sanguine too: “If a country is in crisis the government silences the artists or disrespects them. They judge them for not having a big car, or much money, and call them idiots, but really they’re scared of them; artists are the soul of a country, the ones who make change.”

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