Africa Thesis Award 2012

Award winner Nkululeko Mabandla and chairman of the jury Harry WelsThe Africa Thesis Award 2012 was won by Nkululeko Mabandla (University of Cape Town) for his thesis entitled Lahla Ngubo. The Continuities and Discontinuities of a South African Black Middle Class.

Full text of thesis

This study contributes to our understanding of the trajectories of South Africa’s historical black middle class – a class which is defined by access to education, and resulting occupational opportunities, as well as access to land. The middle class under study is a particular black middle-class that established itself in Mthatha in the former Transkei Bantustan from 1908 onwards, when the Mthatha municipality needed a new and safe source of fresh drinking water and sold land to both black and white buyers in order to finance the so-called Umtata Water Scheme. This allowed the accumulation of land in the hands of a hitherto largely occupationally-based, mission-educated black middle class. The way in which this particular landed middle class has reproduced and transformed itself from the around 1900 to the present is the focus of the analysis.

Land, property and class
The study builds on Redding’s (1987) historical study of Mthatha (1870-1950) and extends the analysis to the apartheid and post-apartheid eras (1950-2010); that is, to a historical period which is generally described as being characterized by de-agrarianisation, proletarianisation and urbanisation. Consequently, land and property are rarely considered in studies dealing with this period and class is defined in terms of occupation/income only.
However, this study shows clearly that the Ncambedlana black middle class continued to combine occupation and landownership up until the present. In addition to the first generation discussed by Redding, this study identified two more generations: a second generation which developed from the 1950s onwards, and their descendants, the third generation, which continues to combine occupation and landownership to date.

Agricultural usage
The second generation continued to be actively engaged in subsistence and commercial agriculture in the 1960s and 1970s, and established Ncambedlana as a residential middle-class neighbourhood which became known throughout the country as a place where blacks could ‘own’ land. Women played an important role in the agricultural activities of the second generation, and were central in the organization, control and marketing of household agricultural production.

Residential usage
For the third generation, however, agriculture has been supplanted by real estate development and rental accommodation units. In other words, agricultural land has been converted to residential. The reasons for this conversion are many, and one can identify push as well as pull factors. Among the push factors are: (a) the discouragement of commercial agriculture in urban areas after 1976 (Transkei ‘independence’), (b) lack of agricultural training at schools, (c) drought and soil erosion, and (d) competition from large retail food chain stores. Population growth in Mthatha and lack of affordable housing has been a major pull factor: agriculture now has to compete with more profitable practices such as industrial, commercial and residential land usage.

Life histories
Life histories were collected from members of the Ncambedlana middle class in July/August 2010 in Mthatha. In addition, archival research was undertaken in Mthatha and Cape Town. The study aims to answer the following central question: What happened to the Bantustan black middle class that combined occupation and landownership in the apartheid and post-apartheid eras? This problem is embedded in a broader theoretical and conceptual question, namely: What role if any does land play in the definition of the middle class?