For most of my life I grew up thinking that if you made it into the middle-class, that’s it. You’ve made the cut. Life is easy. And if I ever had a doubt about it, I would quickly be reassured by another story glorifying the “rise of the black middle-class” and touting their successes.
I thought I had it made. I went to one of the country’s most expensive all-girl private schools, where I learned to speak English in a way that would make even white people compliment me. I received a monthly allowance and never had to work a holiday job. Instead, I spent most of my holidays with my friends or at the coast with my family. I just didn’t live like the average black South African. I knew I had to be a part of this elite group mentioned in the media and I thanked my lucky stars that my life would be easy.
Then I got to varsity where it really didn’t matter whether I went to the most expensive all-girl school in the country or if I studied under a tree. I started to see how little substance there really was to being in the middle-class.
All of a sudden I began to understand how fragile my middle-class status was. I had made it, but I didn’t know that I had just made it. I was part of the elite, but I just wasn’t elite enough.
It got me thinking about the idea of the black middle-class and how fickle it really is. This became especially clear to me when I compared myself to the white, middle-class girls I went to school with. When I compared my life to that of my schoolmates, I realised I was still very far behind. Unlike my white schoolmates, my parents could never afford to support me on a gap year and pursuing an artistic career was never on the cards for me. I felt intense pressure to pass every course and knew it just wasn’t an option to change my degree despite my disinterest in what I was studying.
Even now the fragility of my middle-class status lingers. Some would assume that a statistic placing the unemployment rate at 26.4% would not apply to me and others like me. You would assume that my parents would use their connections to set me up with a job somewhere where it didn’t matter that I didn’t meet the job requirements or had no experience.
I just don’t have that kind of black middle-class privilege. I am not the kind of black elite that can skip the red tape, jump the queue and have a degree simply “for bureaucratic procedures”. I have to wait in line and I am also just another name on another CV.
The reality is, my parents have spent most of their wealth on my secondary education. I actually can’t fuck up without facing any significant consequences. I do not have the security of an inheritance and the legacy of generational wealth. I can imagine a world where my own financial position would mean that my children would not enjoy the kind of life I have enjoyed. That’s exactly what would happen if I fucked up.
I am first-generation middle-class. I am the birth or the end of a legacy. I am young, black, middle-class and unemployed.
Words by @ThatGirlFati
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