The Rise of an African Middle Class: Colonial Zimbabwe, 1898-1965

The Rise of an African Middle Class: Colonial Zimbabwe, 1898-1965

The Rise of an African Middle Class: Colonial Zimbabwe, 1898-1965

The Rise of an African Middle Class: Colonial Zimbabwe, 1898-1965


"Offers an extremely sophisticated, nuanced view of the social and political construction of an African middle class in colonial Zimbabwe." --Elizabeth Schmidt

Tracing their quest for social recognition from the time of Cecil Rhodes to Rhodesia's unilateral declaration of independence, Michael O. West shows how some Africans were able to avail themselves of scarce educational and social opportunities in order to achieve some degree of upward mobility in a society that was hostile to their ambitions. Though relatively few in number and not rich by colonial standards, this comparatively better class of Africans challenged individual and social barriers imposed by colonialism to become the locus of protest against European domination. This extensive and original book opens new perspective into relations between colonizers and colonized in colonial Zimbabwe.


THIS BOOK TELLS the story of the rise of an African middle class in colonial Zimbabwe (Southern Rhodesia) over three generations, from 1898 to its full emergence as a self-conscious class in 1965. As a group, the African middle class constituted a singular corporate entity; it was distinguishable from the other major social strata in the society—the dominant European settlers (who were themselves internally differentiated) on the one hand and the African peasants and workers on the other.

The design of the colonial project in Africa was such that this book should not have been possible, that is, the rise of an African middle class simply was not part of the scheme of the European colonizers. On the contrary, public policy in colonial Africa, and even more so in white-settler-dominated territories like Southern Rhodesia, vitiated the process of social mobility among the colonized. Consistent with the dominant trend among colonial administrations in Africa, Rhodesian policy emphasized the mobilization of labor for the dominant industries: mining, commercial agriculture, and domestic service. In this political economy, the vast majority of the wage workers were destined to join the ranks of the unskilled, semiskilled, and low-paid laboring class. The peasants, who formed the majority of the population, fared no better; the seizure of the best land by the government and the white settlers it encouraged to “develop” the colony also condemned the peasantry to a life of drudgery. The peasants’ toil included reproducing the labor force for the colonial economy, both physically and socially, as well as providing a social security net for retired and injured workers from the dominant industries.

For the African population, this arrangement was hardly conducive to upward social mobility. Yet a small minority of Africans managed to defy the odds. By exploiting the few alternate social spaces available to the colonized, these individuals were able to achieve a certain degree of upward social mobility. Elite Africans in colonial Zimbabwe envisaged a lifestyle, and endeavored to attain a lifestyle, that was quite different from the one their colonial rulers thought suitable for “natives.” By its very existence, the African middle class—a group whose social prominence and political importance amply offset its relatively small number—stood as a protest against the colonial politi-

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.