In South Africa, the plight of middle-income earners has worsened significantly over the past years. As of September 2023, middle-class workers in the country, earning an average take-home pay of around R15,673 per month, find themselves grappling with a staggering financial setback. The cost of living surge coupled with stagnant wages has led to a dramatic decline in their purchasing power, leaving them approximately R10,000 poorer per month compared to their financial status in 2016.
The definition of the middle class varies among researchers and economic entities. The Bureau for Economic Research (BER) considers households earning between R5,000 and R20,000 per month as middle-income, while high-income households are those earning above R20,000. However, the analytics firm Eighty20 defines middle-class workers as households with an income of nearly R25,000 per month and a personal income of R15,000, aligning with BankservAfrica’s assessment that pegs the average take-home pay at around R15,673 per month.
Despite a nominal salary increase of 4.1% year-on-year in September, the reality remains grim for South Africa’s middle-income earners. With inflation outpacing wage growth, the actual purchasing power diminishes. Adjusted for inflation, the real take-home pay dropped by 0.8% to R14,239 over the same period, as indicated by BankservAfrica’s Take-Home Pay Index (BTPI).
Annabel Bishop, Chief Economist at Investec, highlighted a consistent decline in households’ purchasing power, citing a drop in real take-home pay from R15,450 in January 2022 to R15,771 in February 2022. DebtBusters’ Debt Index report for Q3 2023 echoed this sentiment, revealing that consumers feel they are taking home 40% less in real terms compared to 2016, despite nominal income being 1% higher during this period. This stark difference can be attributed to cumulative inflation growth of 41% over the past seven years.
Middle-income South Africans earning R15,673 monthly would need to earn approximately R26,122 today to maintain the same purchasing power they held in 2016. This alarming disparity translates to a staggering loss of R10,449 per month, indicating the magnitude of the financial strain faced by this demographic.
Moreover, the surge in prime lending rates, escalating from 3.50% to 8.25% since November 2021, has added to the financial burden of consumers. According to Bishop, while this increase isn’t unprecedented historically, new borrowers entering this cycle will feel an intensified financial strain.
The latest Consumer Financial Vulnerability Index (CFVI) by Momentum and Unisa highlights structural risks like load shedding and political instability, in addition to cyclical factors such as high interest rates and inflation, as major threats to consumer finances. Looking ahead to Q4 2023, these structural risks are expected to exacerbate, with persistent unemployment, poverty, inequality, and continuous load shedding posing the most significant risks to consumer finances.
In summary, South Africa’s middle-income earners face a formidable challenge in maintaining their standard of living. The combination of inflationary pressures, stagnant wages, and increasing interest rates has eroded their purchasing power significantly since 2016. As structural and cyclical risks loom large on the horizon, addressing these economic challenges becomes paramount to alleviating the financial strain on the middle class in South Africa.