The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Africa’s middle class struggles to keep pace with rising inflation

A woman serves thieboudienne, also known as ceebu jën, near the Kermel market in Dakar, Senegal, in December. (Carmen Abd Ali/AFP/Getty Images)
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CAPE TOWN, South Africa — This was meant to be the time when Jayde Koen and her generation could finally settle into a better life.

A mixed-race South African in Cape Town, she was 9 years old in 1994 when the country’s first democratic election ended White minority rule. Koen was the first in her family to graduate from college, then become a lawyer. She married and worked hard with her husband to build a middle-class life — three kids, a house, two cars.

Today her family is struggling to keep up. The covid-19 pandemic that first hammered South Africa in early 2020 brought hard lockdowns, record unemployment and economic dysfunction as global supply chains shut down. Russia’s war in Ukraine this year has led to spikes in fuel prices and the cost of everyday commodities such as wheat, barley and sunflower oil.

Stories like Koen’s are happening throughout the world, but the crisis is especially acute in sub-Saharan Africa, where inflation is the highest it has been since the 2008 global financial crisis, according to the International Monetary Fund. Families already on the brink are slipping further into poverty, while many who had joined the region’s fast-growing middle class are falling behind.

The savings Koen built slowly over the years are dwindling. Her husband, who works in the auto industry, hasn’t had a wage increase since the start of the pandemic. Earnings from his second job repairing cars on weekends once paid for family outings and vacations; now they are spent on groceries.

“We’re just pushing through,” Koen said, “hoping we can breathe again soon.”

She is cooking less to conserve power — with electricity costs up 14 percent compared with last year — and trying to make enough food each time to last several days. With gas prices in South Africa up nearly 30 percent year over year, Koen has traded in her vehicle for a smaller fuel-efficient model and travels outside rush hour twice a week when she goes to the office.

At the dawn of the 21st century, Africans were seeing unprecedented upward mobility. By 2011, the African Development Bank estimated that the continent’s middle class had tripled over three decades to 313 million people, or more than 34 percent of the population at the time. Years of strong economic growth allowed many people to transition away from traditional agriculture to more stable, salaried jobs.

From South Africa to West Africa, that stability is now threatened by the lingering impacts of a global health crisis and galloping inflation.

Senegal was forced to close its borders during the pandemic and suffered a massive loss of tourism revenue. Exploration on new oil and gas fields, which was supposed to help power the country’s economic future, was delayed.

In the capital of Dakar, Aminata Gueye, 34, a single mother of two young sons, is unable to make ends meet despite having a good job in the private sector.

“Things are getting tougher financially,” said Gueye, who works as an executive assistant at a company that builds houses. “My parents help me at the end of every month in spite of my monthly pay, otherwise we just can’t make it.”

Gueye struggles to afford the cornflakes and juice her children have come to expect at breakfast every morning. She thinks the government should invest more in local products so consumers are less reliant on expensive imported goods. “This way, we can have the same quality for lower prices,” she said.

Saliou Diouf, 21, works at Dakar’s Kermel market, where he began as a bag carrier and now fills shopping orders for wealthy clients. “Business is always better until prices go up. Then we lose clients,” he said.

Diouf said the pandemic had already taken a toll on the market. This year, traffic has slowed to a crawl: “Today, I may have five clients, tomorrow two. I can never predict. Sometimes I go all day without seeing anyone.”

Serigne Bamba Gaye, an expert in international development, said the longer the downturn lasts, the greater the odds of regional unrest.

“This can lead to social problems with disputes, riots, a rise in tensions that can weaken African states,” said Gaye. “Africa is at a crossroads and we must find ways and means to stop this inflationary spiral.”

Kevin Urama, acting chief economist at the African Development Bank Group, agrees, but he says debt-saddled governments are limited in what they can do to protect their people from soaring prices.

“It’s like having an earthquake followed by aftershocks,” Urama said about inflation coming on the heels of the pandemic. “All of these global head winds are creating huge challenges for countries. For households, inflation is eating deeper into their pockets.”

At My Father’s House, a community kitchen in Cape Town’s southern suburbs, Pastor Shadrick Valayadum has spent more than 20 years feeding the homeless and the destitute. During the pandemic, people from all walks of life began turning to “Pastor Shaddie” for a hot meal.

“There were people in affluent areas, who lived in big houses, who we never thought would call on us. Then they did,” he said.

Demand for food assistance fell as South Africa’s economy began to rebound at the end of last year; now, he said, rising prices are again pushing people to the brink, and his kitchen is struggling to meet the need.

“We can’t use cooking oil anymore [because] it’s too expensive,” Pastor Shaddie said. “We use water, mix it with sugar and caramelize it in the pot, and then once it starts to brown you throw in water and then you throw in onions.”

The charity used to be able to afford meat four times a week. These days, most of the meals it prepares are vegetarian. It is a vital lifeline for the 1,500 people it feeds every day, a number the pastor expects will keep growing.

“Families can’t feed themselves anymore,” he said. “People are trying to catch up and catch up and catch up, and they can’t.”

Tall reported from Dakar, Senegal.