In light of the economic, political and social significance of the middle class for South Africa's emerging democracy, we critically examine contrasting conceptualisations of social class. We compare four rival approaches to empirical estimation of class: an occupational skill measure, a vulnerability indictor, an income polarisation approach and subjective social status. There is considerable variation in who is classified as middle class based on the definition that is employed and, in particular, a marked difference between subjective and objective notions of social class. We caution against overoptimistic predictions based on the growth of the black middle class. While the surge in the black middle class is expected to help dismantle the association between race and class in South Africa, the analysis suggests that notions of identity may adjust more slowly to these new realities and consequently racial integration and social cohesion may emerge with a substantial lag.