The changing dynamics of social class, mobility and housing in Black Johannesburg

12 Jul 2013

In contemporary public debates regarding the significance of social mobility, new cultures of consumption and the black middle class, the point is often made that Africans living in urban areas before the onset of constitutional democracy were a homogenous group lacking in significant forms of social differentiation. The continued side-lining of long histories of social differentiation among urban Africans today has the effect not only of indirectly overstating the role recent policies such as affirmative action has played in the emergence of the ‘new’ black middle class, but also in limiting the public understanding of the historically constructed, multiple and complex meanings that practices of consumption has had in urban African municipal locations. In this article, I argue for historically-sensitive and ethnographically-informed analyses of consumption practices that move beyond the stereotyping of the black middle class as ‘conspicuous consumers’. Looking at the history of public housing in Soweto helps us understand that ‘new’ cultures of consumption among citizens is often rooted in everyday experiences as subjects residing in social spaces – former urban African municipal locations – that were defined and designed as spaces of consumption and not of production or income-generation. The arguments contained in this article build on insights derived from my reading of James Ferguson (2002) and Daniel Miller (1988), especially around challenging interpretations of the renovations of municipal-owned housing in Soweto as a form of conspicuous consumption.