WATCH: Poverty stats spell doom for SA middle class


27 September 2017 - The latest poverty statistics paint a gloomy picture for South Africa. The average family lives on about R17 a day with about 30 million South Africans classified as poor.

JOHANNESBURG - The latest poverty statistics paint a gloomy picture for South Africa.

The average family lives on about R17 a day, with about 30 million South Africans classified as poor.

But in a country of 55 million people, just who counts as middle class when more than half the population is poor?

The South African black middle class has more than trebled over the past 12 years - 6 million people were recorded as being in the middle class in 2016.

READ: Women, children bear the brunt of poverty in SA

Some academics suggest that the term black middle class is unfinished business.

Doctor Jason Musyoka, from the University of Pretoria, says it’s not that simple, given the country’s history.

According to him, an income barometer which many use to determine classes is not a suitable way to define this group.

“Someone who earns 5 dollars a day, that’s plus minus R60 rand and somebody who earns 20 dollars a day. The divergence is huge…That definition is very flawed from that point of view. I think it’s very misleading. I think it creates the impression, especially in African context and South Africa, the middle class is a large category," says Musyoka. 

“If you are middle class, the first thing is you should not be living in subsistence. Which is why the debate around 2 dollar a day/ 4 dollar a day becomes nullified. You should be able to earn enough for you to not live from hand to mouth.”

Research shows a middle class family is a household of four persons with a total income of between R5, 600 and R40, 000 per month after direct income tax.

READ: The African middle class matters: but not for the reasons commonly put forward

A professor from Wits University describes the black middle class as vulnerable.

Despite the fact that the middle class is supposed to be better off than the working class, things like "black tax" could easily push them back into poverty.

According to Professor William Gumede, “If you now young and you middle class and you black, although it is informally called black tax. You paying for your siblings, for their education for their health. You paying for your parents…There is expectation that you can look after the family, that your income is spread to your extended family. So you pay your normal tax but you pay black this tax…It brings new vulnerability to that.”

Gumede highlights that falling into the middle class category doesn’t mean you need to have formal employment.

Factors driving the increase in the group include greater access to credit, improved education levels, BEE and improved economic growth until recently.

The recent downgrades have caused concern, though.

For years the middle class have been defined as the tool for good in society and the drivers of economic growth, but with ongoing job losses and recent downgrades, the group remains fragile.