Despite a long-running debate on poverty and inequality in South Africa, we have not had a robust measure of what it is to live, not merely to survive, but to live decently. Simply put, we do not know what a decent life looks like. Nor do we have a sense of the income level associated with a decent life. The incomes reflected in social dialogue and policy instruments are largely arbitrary. Why is the child support grant R400 per month? Why is the national minimum wage R3500 per month? You might say that social grants are shaped by budget constraints. You might say that the economy cannot afford a higher minimum wage. What you are really saying is that these amounts are more than nothing. What you are really saying is that you don’t know how much we need for a decent life and you don’t know what a decent life looks like.
We disguise our ignorance by talking about jobs. If everyone could just have a job, then we don’t have to worry. But we do have to worry. There is no evidence that the South African economy has the ability to meaningfully grow employment, even under conditions of modest and sustained growth, conditions that are an increasingly distant memory.
A new way of looking at a decent life for all
The median per capita income associated with a decent standard of living in April 2018 was R7,043 per month.
UPDATE: The DSL has now been updated to 2021 prices, using the DSLI Calculator and the published CPI data (‘total country’) by Statistics South Africa. The updated monthly income associated with a decent standard of living as at September 2021 is R7,911 per person, from R7,326 in April 2019.
What does it all mean?
The DSL offers more than a series of thresholds around which we can measure how many are below and how many are above. The DSL offers us ideas about how to move households towards a socially-derived vision of a decent standard of living.