1978 was the year the middle class collapsed in Southern Africa. Black militants proved that the Rhodesian (now Zimbabwean) government was too weak to protect its citizens when insurgents shot down Air Rhodesia Flight 825 and massacred the survivors. Rebels attacked Port Elizabeth and Daveyton in South Africa, leading the South African Defense Force to increase military operations in Angola. Mozambique, having recently won its independence from Portugal, began to spiral towards civil war, causing over half of the European population to flee in less than four months. Across Africa a mass exodus occurred as both the historically white and emerging black middle class saw no future in a continent filled with despair.
Today the situation has improved. In 2015, the global number of people living in extreme poverty fell below 10% for the first time. In Africa, the figure is far higher – 43% – but there too it is falling dramatically. Sizable investments in the continent, led by China, but aided by numerous public and private sources, have created new economic opportunities and increased the incomes of millions of Africans. The African Development Bank estimates that more than 350 million Africans are middle class; more than one third of the African population. The emergence of this new consumer group could have a profound impact not only on the continent, but on the world. As more people enjoy financial stability, they will demand a wider range of goods and services, and place a greater strain on government, the environment and infrastructure. National governments and international donors, must develop plans for these shifting needs.
The key to continent-wide change will be the middle class’s better access to education. As more people have disposable income, the rate and quality of education is expected to improve. Formal schooling, once financially off limits to millions, should become increasingly available. Middle class families who seek better opportunities for their children will push educators to improve their teaching. This could create a “cycle of learning” – better schools, creating better teachers, producing better students, and so on.
Improved education and access to media should result in improved dissemination of ideas and increase demands for governmental accountability. When voters are exposed to issues outside of their own region, transparency, too, should be improved. Improvements in rule of law and contracts enforcement would certainly improve economic growth by protecting investors and making it easier to start a business. Conversely, as more people move to cities and open shops, restaurants, and offices, governments will need to be more responsive to the needs of their people. As more people can afford cars, there’s more pressure for the government to build bridges and fill potholes.
Economic growth alone will not suddenly turn Africa into a stable, and prosperous continent. South Africa is a clear example that it can take decades for an expanding middle class to fully embrace democratic values: wealthy voters are slowly turning away from the entrenched power of the ANC, but corruption is still rife. If income inequality remains rampant, the gains of a growing middle class will spread unevenly across a society. Pains must be taken to ensure that wealth is not concentrated in certain regions, or even certain neighborhoods, creating pockets of prosperity and stability that do not spread and ultimately crumble. Angola is a near-perfect case study of a country where growth from exporting natural resources was not distributed outside a small political elite. Now, even the state oil giant is on the brink of collapse.
Continent-wide commercial growth has already pulled millions out of destitution and into an African middle class. Radios, televisions, mobile phones and internet access are becoming common, improving information sharing and forcing government accountability. Democracy seems to be improving in the states with better economic prospects. Countries which remain impoverished, though, seem destined to live under the rule of authoritarian regimes.