Class Structure and Caste

African societies, like those in nearly all areas of the world, are divided into various groups or classes. Each class has its own distinct characteristics, roles, privileges and limitations, and relations with other groups. Only a few societies based on hunting and gathering have no formal division into classes.

The class structure of African societies today is a patchwork. Some of the traditions that shape it have been carried over from precolonial times. Other elements can be traced to Western influence. The result is a complex structure that is still developing as new forces of change reach African societies.


Traditional African societies are stratified—organized into levels like the layers of a cake. Three basic principles define the hierarchy within African class systems. The first of these is elderhood, the quality of being older than someone else. The second is servitude, the condition of controlling or being controlled by others. And the third is rank, or a person’s level in society relative to the ruler.


Peasant society, made up of fairly simple agricultural communities, is widespread in Africa. In such societies, everyone lives in much the same way. Differences in wealth and occupation have little or no importance. Instead, hierarchy is based on the concept of precedence, that is, who came first. Status—respected position—and power belong to old and established groups rather than to the new.

Respect for elderhood is the key to the social organization of these societies. For example, a group that has cleared an unoccupied piece of land gains precedence, or the right to be honored, as the first settlers on that land. To maintain peaceful relations, newcomers who want to live nearby must acknowledge the precedence of those who were there first. The first settled family usually heads local councils. Other families assume duties according to their abilities, and some may gain influence because of their wisdom, strength, courage, or fertility.

Within most communities and families, status is linked to age. Each person has less status and authority than older individuals but more than those who are younger. Final authority rests with the eldest person in the community. But even that person must respect the authority of the dead elders—the ancestors. In some societies, the entire community is organized into age sets—groups of people at the same stages of life. As the members of an age set become older, they gain greater power and status in the community.


In other traditional African societies, class structure has been based on levels of control or servitude. After about A.D. 500, several centrally organized, warring states appeared in parts of Africa. In these states, violence and exploitation led to societies ruled by classes of military aristocrats or nobles.

Slaves and servants were at the bottom of the social structure. Slaves were people who had been captured or defeated in war. Servants were the descendants of slaves and other servants, born into bondage on their masters’ estates. Just above slaves on the social ladder were commoners, including peasants and merchants. They could not be enslaved, but they could own slaves. With more rights and authority than commoners, aristocrats were still higher in society. Only people from this class could rise to the highest level of all—rulership.

Many African societies share a similar three-part class structure. Among the TUAREG of northwestern Africa, for example, kings or leaders come from the imajeghen, a class of nobles who make up less than one percent of all Tuaregs. Below this class is the imghad, the common people. The third and lowest class, the iklan, consists of farmers, herders, laborers, and artisans whose ancestors were black Africans enslaved by the Tuareg.

A form of hierarchy called patronage or clientage has also shaped African societies. It is a relationship between people of unequal status, wealth, or power. The higher-status patron provides protection or security to the lower-status client, who in turn is expected to give loyalty and obedience to the patron. A patron may have many clients, and clients may have clients of their own. Complex webs of patronage are part of the structure of social and political life in both traditional and modern communities.

In some aristocratic societies, patronage grew into a system called caste. Patrons protected and took care of members of certain castes—such as blacksmiths, leather workers, or musicians—who produced things that the patrons wanted. Although caste members were considered free, they were under the authority of kings and nobles and could not marry outside their own groups. Castes tended to become closed, hereditary groups within the larger societies.


As aristocrats competed for power and status, systems of rank emerged, creating hierarchies within the courts of kings and emperors. Some of these hierarchies included many subdivisions. Ranking gave rise to elaborate systems of etiquette by which individuals acknowledged each other’s rank.

Heirs to a throne and aristocrats were not the only individuals who could reach high rank. Because rival heirs and ambitious aristocratic clans could threaten a king’s power, rulers often appointed trusted slaves to high-ranking positions as advisers or military officers. Sometimes, as in the kingdom of TOGO, court slaves eventually took over the throne.

Islamic societies in northern Africa adopted an Arab-influenced system of rank in which warrior clans held power. Elsewhere, even small communities of Muslim merchants created Islamic-style local governments. Judges and holy men had high rank because they administered the laws and advice needed to conduct business, manage slavery, and settle disputes.


Although many Africans remain deeply loyal to traditional social systems, Western institutions and policies dominate modern Africa. Social class affects everyone’s daily behavior, yet the class structure is too complex and varied to be easily summarized. Indeed, the class structure of African society is still taking shape.


In urban settings and societies undergoing modernization, the elite class—people with power and influence—is expanding. In the 1960s, the African elite consisted of small groups of men and women, generally from the same schools and universities. Today the elite class has become both larger and more diverse. Its members serve as links between African societies and a global elite—the owners and executives of international corporations and agencies such as the United Nations. Although the African elite are at the top level of their own local or national status system, they form the lower level of the international superclass.

Members of the global elite also form a permanent social class in African society. Non-African officials of international companies and agencies are not citizens of any African nations where they live and work. They do not vote. They have no local ancestors and usually no descendants who will remain in Africa. However, their Western lifestyles and behavior have a far-reaching effect on African society.

In contrast to the elite is a mass of peasants, workers, migrants, shopkeepers, small businesspeople, clerks, schoolteachers, soldiers, police, and minor officeholders. These people cannot rightly be called a class because they have little in common to unite them. However, they generally share resentment over the widening gap between them and the elite.


African peoples are divided into thousands of ethnic groups. Ethnic ties and loyalties connect people across the lines of class. Workers belonging to one ethnic group are likely to feel closer to elite members of the same group than to workers from another group. In Africa, where nations often contains many different ethnic groups, ethnic ties can hinder the growth of national identity. Individuals may regard themselves as Ganda or YORUBA, for example, rather than Ugandan or Nigerian. Ethnic ties may also affect class divisions. Heads of state sometimes favor members of their own ethnic group with positions of power and profit. Such favoritism has led to civil war among competing groups in many African nations.

SOUTH AFRICA was formerly the continent’s prime example of a social structure based on ethnic and racial identity. Under the system called APARTHEID, social groups were legally organized into a hierarchy, with whites at the top, followed by Indians, “Coloureds” (people of mixed race), and Africans at the bottom of the social ladder. Although apartheid has ended, its social and economic inequalities linger, and South Africa’s class structure still has strong ethnic and racial elements.


In modern Africa, rank has little influence on social organization. Rank has lost most of its importance because it has no place in the foreign economic and political systems that now dominate much of Africa. Only in a few cases, including SWAZILAND, LESOTHO, and BOTSWANA, have systems of hereditary rank been preserved. The ethnic kings of these nations are heads of state. Elsewhere, ethnic rulers—such as the Buganda king in UGANDA and the Muslim emirs of northern NIGERIA—have become regional leaders with limited power.

In a few situations in which rank remains important, it may have religious as well as political meaning. Following Islamic tradition, some groups of BERBERS in North Africa give the highest place in their social order to people who claim to be descended from Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. Catholic churches in Africa also maintain a rigid, elaborate, and formal hierarchy of ranks. (See also Age and AgingEthnic Groups and Identity, Gender Roles and Sexuality, Islam in Africa, Kings and Kingship, Kinship, Slavery, Women in Africa.)