The Unfulfilled Aspirations of African middle-class in 1930s

“Aspiration” Bronze Sculpture


The African middle-class in South Africa is mired into a flawed environment of meaningless accumulation, which renders them mute in proclaiming the need for a restoration. But their story in striving for definition and liberty in a complex world does not begin here.

Already in the early 20th century, South Africa witnessed a rising class of African early Christian converts, who were landowners, teachers, lawyers and creative thinkers. They too had many hopes and aspirations. This is evident in the vibrant nature of literary production in English and Zulu, for instance. The likes of H.E.I. Dhlomo, B. V. Vilakazi were ahead of their time; in the proposals they made on questions, such as: what does it mean to be human? what is to know? the role of traditional languages? etc. In pursuing these questions they desired what was better than the oppressive environment they saw.

One of the leading ideas amongst African intellectuals at the time was that the world was truly ‘opening out’ for Africans in the country, as suggested by Chief Albert Luthuli and others. They expected things to soon to get better. They saw some promising political signs. Among these signs were:

  1. The Cape African Vote, which allowed certain African populations the right to vote in the Cape province
  2.  The founding of the ANC in 1912: the formation of the South African Native National Congress in 1912 (later the African National Congress) saw an unprecedented consolidation of power and solidifying of a collective consciousness amongst educated Africans.
  3. The forming of the Joint Councils: these were platforms intended to foster formal dialogue between Europeans and African middle-class in the metropolitan centres. The visit of Dr J. K. Aggrey (a Ghanaian who was now living in the United States) helped form the Joint Councils. Inspired by the philosophies of Booker T. Washington, Aggrey sought to harmonize relations between Europeans and Africans. He emphasized black self-reliance and education over political emancipation. These ideas had already seeped into native grounds through, for example, John L. Dube’s tour of the United State’s Southern region in 1887. But perhaps what appealed to the African middle-class the most about Aggrey was the way he carried himself; the confidence he exuded when he was speaking to whites, the fact that he had lived in the United States, and his general eloquence. In one man, he stood as a symbol of the future, of which many African middle-classes were left anticipating.[1]When this future did not come to pass, they were very disappointed.

Things only got worse!

The arrival of the Native Affairs Act of 1920 and its hints of tribally based district councils, went against some of the gains that Africans thought they had made.

Progressively in the 1930s; the Slums Act was passed, the Cape African Vote removed, and the Black (Native) Laws Ammendment Act implemented—which prevented the acquisition of land by Africans in urban areas except with permission of the Governor-General. These policy shifts represented a hardening of domination of African populations, rather than an opening as they had anticipated.

The hopes held by African middle-class were shattered, bringing to bear more militant responses from Africans with regards to white domination.

Early African middle-classes all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them from afar. They were confident of them: their right to land, freedom, peace and prosperity. Their story is not complete.

It shoots forward to post-1994 South Africa and democratic rule. Democratic rule has also brought with it many inconsistencies that have left middle-class Africans in a compromising situation, where they, at once, have access to constitutional freedoms, while at the same time, do not hold dominant influence in the realm of knowledge, business, technology and innovation.

Creative Africans must resist the paradox of a corrupting world: a world that is anti-black establishment: where middle-class parents are more confident when their child is educated by a white person, a world that eagerly awaits early teenage pregnancy, and school drop-outs for example, a world that silences opposition when state resources are used for personal gain, a world where one is constantly being bullied by the hidden forces of ‘the market’ with its epi-centre elsewhere than our continent.

Come on Creative Africans, let us stand-up.

Let our freedom be restored.

[1] These include H.E.I. Dhlomo, D.T. Jabavu, John L. Dube, H. Selby Msimang, just to mention a few. See: Pitzer College’s biography on Aggrey, Accessed 8th September 2012 <>