Money and Markets

One in five South Africans now lives on less than R28 a day, the UN finds

Business Insider SA

South Africa poverty
(Getty Images)
  • South Africa is struggling to advance human development, according to the United Nations’ latest report.
  • Approximately 18.9% of the population survives off less than R27.66 a day.
  • The country is still regarded as the most unequal in the world, the wealthiest 10% of the population holding more than half the nation’s income.
  • For more articles, go to

South Africa remains one of the most unequal countries in the world, according to the global Human Development Index in 2020.

Determined by average life expectancy, education and income equality, the United Nations’ (UN) latest Human Development Report looks to provide a detailed view of a world in flux. Assessing 189 countries through a wide range of socioeconomic indicators, the UN’s annual Human Development Index (HDI) analyses the quality of life against the backdrop of industrial advancement.

Since 2014, South Africa has dropped two ranks lower on the index and one rank lower as a result of planetary pressure monitoring. The latter adjust the overall HDI score by measuring the level of carbon dioxide emissions and material footprint per capita.

Nestled between Venezuela and Palestine, ranked at 114 out of 189 countries surveyed, South Africa’s uneasy socioeconomic standing is being degraded by declining standards of living, with the cycle of multidimensional poverty trapping the poorest 40% of the country.

South Africa’s greatest failing on the global index is a result of the UN’s inequality-adjusted measurement. Although South Africa manages to stick with average scores for developing countries in other HDI categories, it falls far behind in the coefficient of human inequality assessment. This decreases South Africa’s HDI by a further 18 ranks, a level of loss only slightly exceeded by Brazil and the Comoros.

South Africa remains the most unequal country in the world according to the Gini coefficient, which analyses the distribution of income among individuals and households. South Africa has the highest global score of 63.

Furthermore, the wealthiest 10% of South Africa’s population holds more than half the nation’s income. The poorest 40% of the nation shares just 7.2%. This level of income inequality is the largest deviation noted by the UN’s HDI. South Africa’s inequality in life expectancy and education also ranks as some of the highest deviations in the world.

The study goes further to point out socioeconomic inequalities according to gender. Women, on average, earn 38% less than men and end up leaving school one year earlier, primarily due to teenage pregnancy. Less South African women have a tertiary education when compared to men.

While Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) reports that the average formal South African worker earns R22,500 per month, the HDI points to a growing number of citizens living below the international poverty line. The UN notes that 18.9% of the population – some 11 million South Africans – survive on less than $1.90, which converts to just R27.66, a day, or around R800 per month.

It's further estimated that nearly 4 million South Africans are in a state of multidimensional poverty, defined as poor health, malnutrition, a lack of clean water, inadequate access to healthcare services and poor, if any, housing conditions.

The latter, reflected as a poor standard of living, contributes 47.4% to multidimensional poverty in South Africa.

Neighbouring Mozambique has a far worse multidimensional poverty rating, with approximately 62.9% of the populations living below the international poverty line. Similar figures are recorded in Malawi (70.3%) and Zambia (57.5%). Almost 5 million Zimbabweans, roughly 39% of the population, survives on less than $1.90 per day.

As part of its report, the UN notes that socioeconomic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic – which has led to more than 2 million job losses in South Africa alone – will likely intensify inequalities and cause the number of citizens languishing below the international poverty line to increase.

Countries at the top of the HDI include Norway, Ireland, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Iceland, Germany, and Sweden.

Countries with the lowest HDI rankings include Niger, Central African Republic, Chad, South Sudan, Burundi, and Mali.

Receive a daily news update on your cellphone. Or get the best of our site emailed to you

Go to the Business Insider front page for more stories.