“Class in Soweto” wins UJ researchers award at inaugural NIHSS Book, Creative and Digital Awards

University of Johannesburg (UJ) researchers received an award for Best Non-fiction Edited Volume for Class in Soweto, at the inaugural National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS) Book, Creative and Digital Awards held in Johannesburg on the 30th of March 2016.

In 2013 the researchers collaborated on a study of meanings attached to the concept ‘class’, and the way these relate to lived experiences, based on extensive empirical research conducted in Soweto between 2005 and 2012.

The researcher group was led by the University’s Professor of Sociology and South African Research Initiative (SARChI) Chairholder in Social Change, Prof Peter Alexander, with included co-authors Claire Ceruti, Keke Motseke, Mosa Phadi and Kim Wale.

“It is gratifying that teamwork has been rewarded. I learnt immensely from others in the group, all of whom came up with marvelous ideas, some of them quite brilliant,” said Prof Alexander. Winning the prize came as an exceptionally pleasant shock, and a real honour to him. “Whoever came up with the idea of these prizes should be congratulated, because prizes reward quality, or somebody’s perception of quality, thus an antidote to unrelenting pressure for quantity.”

The volume offers many original ideas and was named as one of the ‘Outstanding Books of 2014’ by Choice, the review journal of academic librarians in the USA.

According to Prof Alexander, the core of the book reworks Marxist thinking about class in ways that take on board complexities of identity and the significance of consumption.

On the award winning book he further iterated: “The book is really a co-authored monograph rather than an edited collection in the usual sense. Empirically it is about Soweto, but it has broad theoretical implications.

“For instance, Claire and Mosa show that people generally have more than one class identity and we try to explain why this is the case. In my view, this is important for understanding the US, for example, as well as South Africa. Hopefully the prize will encourage more people to take a look at the book.”​

Class in Soweto contributions by authors:

Claire Ceruti

Claire Ceruti contributes two pivotal chapters, Contemporary Soweto: Dimensions of stratification and A proletarian township: Work, home and class.

She creates nine ECs, which are a means of integrating the unemployed, underemployed, students and pensioners into class analysis.

Regularly employed workers comprise only 24% of the adults, with the petty bourgeoisie, managers and capitalists adding a further 7%. People with regular work live in close proximity to those without; many move from one EC to another during their life; and, critically, a high proportion of Sowetans live in households that include income earners and non-income earners, and it is rare for unemployed people to live alone. Ceruti concludes that there is a ‘community of fate’ with this leading to a ‘differentiated proletarian township’. She also adds an appendix that, through additional findings from the survey, gives interesting context for the book’s main themes.

Mosa Phadi

Mosa Phadi provides two ground-breaking chapters. The first, Models, labels and affordability, co-authored by Ceruti, is founded on the insight that people can have two or more class identities.

Utilising categories derived from their earlier qualitative research, which eschewed any leading questions, it turned out that this was the case.

Whereas 38% accepted just one class label, 57% used two or more; only 9% were unable to describe themselves using any class terms.

It is less that people are ‘confused’ about ‘class’, as one writer suggests, more that they have identities derived from, first, some gauge of comparative well-being (usually a three-class model, with ‘upper’, ‘middle’ and ‘lower’ categories) and, secondly, employment.

Combinations of ‘middle class’ and ‘poor’ and of ‘middle class’ and ‘working class’ were common. Correlations existed between ‘working class’ and working, and between ‘lower’ or ‘poor’ (the two were virtually interchangeable) and impoverished circumstances. As Alexander argues, this approach counters those where class analysis is rejected because of difficulty linking identity with a single, specified class label.

Phadi’s second chapter, The language of class: Confusion, complexity and difficult words, co-authored by Owen Manda, is on languages of ‘class’. They look at the words closest to ‘class’ used in isiZulu and Sesotho, and the way people translate these into English. The nearest words to ‘middle class’, respectively phakathi and mahareng, have meanings closer to ‘in the middle’, which is different to common sociological definitions.

This finding was used by Phadi – in a film screened all over the world – to help explain why 66% of Sowetans described themselves as ‘middle class’ (far more than those using ‘working class’, 43%, or poor, 40%).

Kim Wale

There are two single authored chapters by Kim Wale, Historical introduction to class in Soweto and Perceptions of class mobility. The first, providing historical context, is valuable but derived overwhelmingly from secondary literature. The second is highly innovative.

Drawing on her readings of interview transcripts, Wale explores the relationship between ‘affordability’ and different forms of class consciousness present in people’s world-views. She argues that when people look upwards they tend to emphasise culture and individuality, but when they look downwards systemic poverty comes to the fore.

The implication is contradictory. On the one hand ‘class’ allows mobility, thus for people preferable to ‘race’; on the other hand, if mobility is stunted, counter-hegemonic mobilisation may follow.

Alexander and Wale add a chapter on underemployment, Underemployment: Too poor to be unemployed. For them, the employed/unemployed binary, which prevails in official statistics, is unsatisfactory. They argue for the concept ‘underemployed’ (a combination of partial workers and the survivalist self-employed), who in Soweto accounted for 22% of adults (compared with 24% fully unemployed).

In terms of household income, partial workers were significantly worse off than the unemployed. This is explained by an Indian aphorism: ‘the poor are too poor to be unemployed’.

Keke Motseke and Sibongile Mazibuko

A final chapter by Keke Motseke and Sibongile Mazibuko, Class and religion: Denominations in Soweto, looks at an important but under-researched aspect of South African life, church attendance. Here, although ‘class’ is silenced by notions of ‘unity’, it is present in a number of ways. With denomination, the Rhema and Anglican churches are at the ‘top’ and Nazereth and Shembe are at the ‘bottom’; others range between. ‘Class’ is also linked to variables such as education and language, uniforms and other clothing, seating arrangements, leadership and tithing.

Download the full text for Class in Soweto.

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