FOR many of us, "middle class" and "moderate" seem to go together. In racially divided societies such as this one, they don’t. Which is why the voice of the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) middle class two weekends ago was not saying quite what some of us seem to have heard.

The vehicle for the middle-class voice was the ANC’s Gauteng conference. Gauteng is the most middle class of the ANC provinces — more black people with higher education who work in business and the professions seem to be part of the governing party in this province than in the others. The ANC has acknowledged that its 10 percentage point loss in Gauteng in May’s election was largely a result of its rejection by black middle-class voters who traditionally voted for it.

And so the conference was mainly about how those in the black middle class who are loyal to the ANC could persuade the rest to return. As the two groups are divided by very little, they must have found this fairly easy: they could speak to the worry of those who left the fold by expressing their own concern. If an oft-expressed belief here is correct, the conference should have sent messages that appeal to middle-class people across racial and political barriers.

During apartheid’s last years, the elite was eager to encourage the growth of a black middle class which, it believed, would have a stake in the system and would not try to overthrow it. Some left-wingers feared that a black middle class would indeed turn its back on the fight for change. Apartheid never did create a black middle-class — democracy did that, turning this thinking on its head. Apartheid strategists believed economic advancement could substitute for the vote — it turned out that advancement needed the vote. After 1994, the new black middle class did not reject the ANC — it was, until the defeat of former president Thabo Mbeki, its backbone. But the belief that the black middle class would be less eager for change has remained popular on the left and right.

So the ANC’s middle class wants rapid economic change, whose clear target is the racial make-up of business. It is not on the left — it does not want the poor to share more of what the rich have. It is speaking on behalf of a middle-class constituency by insisting that black business people and professionals share more of what their white counterparts have.

The ANC’s Gauteng conference seemed to confirm the bond between the ANC’s middle class and the rest. Most notably, it rejected e-tolls, which have become a symbol to the middle class, across racial barriers, of everything they dislike about the government. It also seemed to share the middle class’s distaste for President Jacob Zuma (and to be a target of his dislike for it): so tense is the relationship between Gauteng and Zuma that he decided not to attend.

But that is only part of the story: the conference also passed resolutions that are likely to worry sections of the middle class. It called for 49% black ownership of mining and other key economic sectors within 15 years and it wants a state-owned bank to fund the economy’s "transformation" — state ownership of companies, it declares, "remains an option".

So the ANC’s middle class wants rapid economic change, whose clear target is the racial make-up of business. It is not on the left — it does not want the poor to share more of what the rich have. It is speaking on behalf of a middle-class constituency by insisting that black business people and professionals share more of what their white counterparts have.

Becoming middle class may have persuaded this section of the ANC that we do not need radical measures on behalf of the poor. But racial divides, which are still very much with us and which persuade many black business and professional people that whites still do not take them seriously, ensure that they are not happy with present arrangements because they believe they are biased in favour of whites.

Those who see the black middle class as a buffer against change may be right that people who own assets, whatever their race, are not eager to see them redistributed. Their illusion is the belief that, if more black people join the middle class, the problem of race will disappear. This was not so under apartheid — upper-income black people were no happier about being treated as inferiors because they were well-off — and it has not been so since. The Gauteng conference confirms that becoming middle class does not make black people here less impatient for racial change — if anything, it makes them less happy because they expected their skills and assets to free them from race prejudice and they feel they haven’t. And so one unheard message from the conference is that the growth of a black middle class does not make our racial divide go away — on the contrary, it sharpens it.

At bottom, the belief that owning assets will change black people into opponents of change expresses the hope that racial divisions can be made to go away even if we don’t fix them. The conference is another reminder that there is no substitute for dealing with our most damaging problem, the survival of attitudes that assume that some of us are naturally better than others.

Economic change will not fix the race divides for us — we have to do it ourselves.

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