Social security as a marker of class in Africa


Jean and John Comaroff’s book “Theory from the South” (2012) eloquently argues that our theoretical frameworks predominantly come from the global north, however, studies on the global south provide us with much better empirical material to verify these theories. Taking this idea seriously would mean to challenge our common understanding of the world and to feed ideas from the south back into our theoretical frameworks.

By and large, current approaches for the study of class derive from central European scholars such as Karl Marx, Max Weber, Pierre Bourdieu. What can we learn from their work about Africa, Asia and Southern America?  More specifically, what can we learn from Africa about them? To answer the latter: Historic and social circumstances are quite different from those they had in mind when studying class.

With this in mind I asked my Kenyan neighbour Maleon, an economist in an influential political position, to define the middle class in Kenya. She defined the middle class as one made up of those people who would be able to maintain their lives in the same accommodation, modes of transport and habits for six months, if the main source of their income was interrupted. (What would have Marx, Weber and Bourdieu thought about this answer?) From my central European academic background, I had expected an answer relating to income, social upward mobility, education, consumerism, ownership and wealth, and yet, my neighbour explained that a middle class household will have access to resources that prevent rapid social descent. Consequently, a middle class household would not, in the event of financial shock, be driven out of the middle and into the lower class. Rather, such a household would be able to cushion itself against financial shortcomings, at least for a limited period of time.

Maleon’s allusion to the risks faced by the middle class reminded me of the definition of class proposed by the African Development Bank (AfDB) in 2011. This definition is often quoted as an authoritative (yet not uncritiqued) source for defining class in Africa and notes that besides the economic indicators that define the class, the lower end of the middle class is also defined by the fact that it is ‘largely vulnerable to slipping back into poverty in the event of some exogenous shocks’ (AfDB 2011). The AfDB referred to the potentiality of the lower middle class falling into poverty. In reverse, Maleon referred to the ability of the stable middle class to prevent a social fall. This perspective on social downward mobility is so far not much elaborated on in the current definitions of the middle class. Current descriptions of the middle class focus predominantly on social upward mobility rather than on social descent.

In Kenya, the middle class (in contrast to those who are unemployed or in the informal sector) has access to government provided, institutionalised, social security[1], and also to private sources of aid, through insurance companies. However, statutory welfare systems in Africa in general and in Kenya in particular are not able to prevent social descent. In total, less than 15% of the elderly and aged received pensions through the Retirement Benefits Authority and in terms of money the pensions will be 6% of the pensionable monthly earnings accrued during work life and other programmes are equally meagre. Hence, social welfare is merely an added component in the social security mix that predominantly hinges on ‘traditional’[2] social security, e.g. solidarity based fail-safe systems on various levels.

Modernisation theories argue that the extended family network is prone to erode and households will, under conditions of industrialisation, monetarisation and urbanisation, statutory social security will overtake functions of catering for needy family members. According to the ILO and following modernization theorists this is a desirable development and Mouton argued in 1975 accordingly that in African countries the introduction of a “sufficiently efficient modern system of social protection can help [the labourer] and even induce him to integrate himself more fully, more deeply and more freely in the wage economy” leaving behind the “traditional mentality”, that is solidarity of a kin group, which also requires constant travels between urban, industrialised centres and rural family homes. And yet, this never materialised in Africa (maybe to a certain extent in South Africa) and family networks still remain (and will be) sources of solidarity. Moreover, there is no intention whatsoever to leave poor family members behind but to uplift and empower them, as my interviewees pointed out.

Family networks were in the past and are in the present the most crucial network of solidarity and care worldwide, as widely described in anthropological works on (in-)security. Neither wage labour nor the introduction of the welfare systems in Africa lead to disruptions in the family based solidarity, quite the opposite. Middle class people in my research cared for extended numbers of poorer relatives but were not able to rely on them financially themselves. My informant Stanely explains that about one hundred people from his father’s or his mother’s side could call him up and ask for assistance. He, however, can only ask for assistance from those few who are financially better off than he is. Stanley explains:

“If I was alone I would be independent and then I would be rich. As a middle class you are more communal, because if I have to cater for so many it can pull you down or hold you back.”

Stanley’s wealth is used to serve his family members with no financial expectation of returns. Another informant, Pamich, reasons that poorer family members may even become jealous and “take what is theirs”, if they feel excluded from this moral economy of sharing. It leads me to the conclusion that those who are able to share and are, in addition, entitled to other resources to secure their own standard of living could be called the African middle class.

What would Marx, Weber and Bourdieu say about this? Bourdieu would probably analyse the kinds of capital involved and point at the preference to invest in social reproduction rather than pieces of art work to distinguish social class. However, in the end we learn that income and wealth or consumption is not a matter of the individual or one household, rather is a communal support factor of social differentiation – a factor we cannot yet grasp with our theory from the North.[3]


Benda-Beckmann, Franz v.; Benda-Beckmann, Keebet v.; Casino, Eric S.; Hirtz, Frank; Woodman, Gordon R. & Hans F. Zacher (1988) Between Kinship and the State: Social Security and Law in Developing Countries, Foris Publications: Dordrecht.

Benda-Beckmann, Franz von; Benda-Beckmann, Keebet von; Marks, Hans (Eds.) (2000) Coping with insecurity. An “underall” perspective on social security in the Third World. 2nd ed. Indonesia, Netherlands: Pustaka Pelajar; Focaal Foundation.

Geißler, Paul W. & Ruth Prince (2010) The Land Is Dying. Contingency, Creativity and Conflict in Western Kenya. Berghahn Books: New York, Oxford.

Häberlein, Tabea (2015) Generationen-Bande: Ordnung, Praxis und Geschichte der Generationenbeziehungen bei den Lama (Kabiye) im nördlichen Togo. LIT: Berlin.

Kroeker, Lena (2016) The Kenyan Middle Class and Responses to Social Security. In: Boanada-Fuchs, Anthony; Gez, Yonathan N.; Waldmüller, Johannes M. (Eds.): (Re)Searching Nairobi‘s Middle Class, Kompreno Research Report, K0001, Kompreno, Geneva. pp. 33-44. Online Source.


Dr. Lena Kroeker is currently a research fellow at the Bayreuth Academy of Advanced African Studies at the University of Bayreuth in an interdisciplinary project entitled “Middle Classes on the Rise”. Her work concerns the social mobility of the middle class in Kenya. Kroeker holds an M.A. in Historical Anthropology from J.W.v.-Goethe University, Frankfurt/M., and a PhD in Social Anthropology from the Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies (BIGSAS), Bayreuth.

[1]          The International Labour Organization defines statutory social security in its preamble as: “the protection which society provides for its members, through a series of public measures against the economic and social distress that otherwise would be caused by the stoppage or substantial reduction of earnings resulting from sickness, maternity, employment injury, invalidity and death; the provision of medical care; and the provision of subsidies for families with children” (ILO 1984: 2-3). Anthropologists in addition consider under this term all kind of solidarity based systems of care – often in absence of functional or accessible state based systems.

[2]          Anthropologists have criticised the over-simplified dichotomy of ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ forms of social security (Benda-Beckmann et al 2000). I am aware of this, however this debate shall not be at the fore of my discussion.

[3]          On the 15th of September 2015 I presented my findings  “The Kenyan Middle Class and Responses to Social Security“ at  a public Lecture inMaseno University, Kenya.

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