Median Income Per Capita in South Africa

I finally found something I’ve been looking for for a while: a figure for South Africa’s median income per capita. The average income per capita is an absolutely meaningless figure unless income is distributed in a bell curve–which it almost never is. It certainly isn’t  in South Africa–a country ranked as the most unequal in the world by some estimates.

A family in New Crossroads Township in Cape Town that I photographed in 2004

Median is the figure taken by putting every person’s income in ascending order and then selecting the middle figure. For the median you need to know each income–including for those without bank accounts, not paying tax, and those working entirely in cash. This is much harder to do than the meaningless average figure, for which all you need do is take the gross national income and divide by the population size.

Easy, but it is absurdly misleading in the world of the “one percent” who are estimated to own half the world’s wealth. According to this calculation, the average South African earned $7,563 per annum in 2012–or R65,000 using a 2012 exchange rate of R8.60 to the US$. Remember, that average includes a handful in South Africa who earn vast fortunes.

A Gallup survey of at least 2,000 people per country  conducted from 2006 t0 2012 gives SA’s median per capita income as $1,217, or R10,400. Then take on board that the poorest households were possibly more difficult to contact, which would make the survey figure higher than it actually is, and we start to see how misleading the average figure is.

This median figure suggests that, at the time of the survey, half of South Africans earned less than R10,400 per year. R65,000 would be hard to live on, but R10,500 is in another league. In comparison, the median US income at the time of the survey was $15,480 or R133,000–more than ten times the South African figure. Of course, the American average at that time was $49,481, or R425,500. Because the average is also a meaningless measure of central tendency in a society with income as skewed as the USA’s–where, like South Africa, a handful of super-earners take the lion’s share.


Author: singemonkey

A South African interested in public health, travel, making music, and photography

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