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Who makes money in South Africa?

South Africa has one of the most unequal income distributions in the world. While a small portion of the population earns very high incomes, a large portion of the population lives in poverty. Understanding who makes money in South Africa and why can provide important insights into the country’s economy and society.

The Ultra-Wealthy

At the very top of South Africa’s income spectrum is a small sliver of ultra-wealthy individuals. These are individuals with net worths in the billions of dollars. According to Forbes’ 2022 list of African billionaires, South Africa has 8 residents with net worths over $1 billion.

The richest of these is luxury goods magnate Johann Rupert, chair of Swiss-based Compagnie Financière Richemont, with an estimated net worth of $11 billion. Rupert comes from a prominent Afrikaner business family and owns stakes in companies like Remgro and Reinet. His wealth comes from interests in sectors like tobacco, financial services, mines, and luxury goods.

Also among South Africa’s billionaires are Nicky Oppenheimer and family, heirs to diamond mining firm De Beers, with a net worth of $8 billion. Retail tycoon Christoffel Wiese has a net worth of $5.2 billion after selling his company Pepkor. Banking heir Jannie Mouton has a net worth of $1.6 billion. There are also billionaires who made their money in telecoms, media, energy, and real estate.

This ultra-wealthy class lives in luxury, with access to things like yachts, private jets, multiple homes around the world, and lavish lifestyles. Their wealth is often inherited and stems from privileged access to lucrative sectors during apartheid.

Executives and Business Owners

Below the billionaires is an upper class of executives and business owners who, while not as mind-bogglingly wealthy, still earn very high incomes:

  • CEOs and executives at major corporations can earn millions of rand per year in salaries. For example, the CEO of financial services group Discovery earned R50 million in 2020.
  • Senior partners at major law firms can earn over R10 million per year.
  • Top investment bankers, management consultants, and accountants at firms like Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, and PwC also earn millions of rand per year.
  • Many small and medium business owners with successful ventures also earn incomes in the millions.

Executive pay has risen rapidly in South Africa – the top 10 highest paid CEOs earned an average of R102 million each in 2020, up from R28 million each in 2015. These high salaries far outstrip average incomes.

Specialized Professionals and Tech Sector Workers

Some elite professionals in high-demand fields earn very good incomes in South Africa’s cities:

  • Doctors – particularly specialists like neurosurgeons, orthopedic surgeons and anesthesiologists – can earn over R2 million per year.
  • Engineers and project managers in fields like oil & gas, construction, and mining can earn over R1.5 million per year.
  • Lawyers at top firms earn over R1.5 million, with senior partners earning far more.
  • Experienced management consultants can earn over R1 million.
  • Software developers and tech professionals with in-demand skills can earn R800,000 or more.

These professionals have specialized skills and credentials that allow them to command very high salaries in the market.

In recent years, skilled tech sector workers have seen particularly high salary growth in South Africa’s cities, driven by booming tech hubs and startups and a skills shortage.

Corporate Managers and Specialists

Within large companies, upper and middle managers earn comfortable incomes in the R500,000 – R1.5 million range. These include:

  • Corporate finance managers
  • Human resource managers
  • Marketing managers
  • Engineering managers
  • Project managers
  • Specialists like financial analysts and in-house attorneys

These corporate jobs require university degrees and experience and offer salaries substantially above average.

Government and Parastatal Jobs

Many government and government-owned parastatal jobs pay good middle class incomes. For example:

  • Municipal managers can earn over R2 million per year.
  • Senior government officials and diplomats earn over R1 million.
  • Middle managers at state-owned companies earn R700,000 – R1 million.
  • Some specialized professions like doctors, engineers, and lawyers in the public sector earn close to private sector rates.

The patronage network of the ruling ANC often allows allies to access lucrative high-paying jobs in the government and parastatals.

Large Business Owners

Owning a large business in sectors like manufacturing, agriculture, retail, mining, energy, and construction can create significant wealth in South Africa. While there are challenges like crime, labor unrest, and electricity shortages, large firms with revenues in the billions of rand can mint wealthy owners. Examples include companies like:

  • Food and agriculture producers RCL Foods and Astral Foods.
  • Retailers like Massmart, Pick n Pay, Spar, Woolworths, and Shoprite.
  • Construction and materials companies like Murray & Roberts and PPC.
  • Mining and resources companies like Exxaro and Impala Platinum.

The size and profitability of these firms allows owners to earn hundreds of millions of rand in dividends and wealth from growth.

Skilled Tradesworkers

Certain skilled trades jobs can earn relatively good wages in South Africa:

  • Electricians can earn R350,000 – R500,000.
  • Plumbers can earn R250,000 – R400,000.
  • Welders can earn R200,000 – R300,000.

These incomes require long apprenticeships but allow workers to earn middle incomes in roles with high demand.

Professional Athletes and Celebrities

Elite South African athletes and media personalities leverage their celebrity to earn good incomes:

  • Top Premier Soccer League players earn over R10 million per year.
  • Rugby players on the national team also earn salaries in the millions.
  • Famous musicians like AKA and Cassper Nyovest earn from music sales, shows, endorsements and business ventures.
  • Top actors and TV personalities earn from roles, endorsements, and appearances.

These celebrities monetize their fame to earn far more than average South Africans.

The Upper Middle Class

Below the very top levels, South Africa still has an upper middle class with comfortable incomes:

  • Mid-level corporate managers earning R400,000 – R700,000.
  • Small business owners earning in the hundreds of thousands.
  • Middle managers in government earning R500,000 – R800,000.
  • Younger professionals like accountants, engineers, and teachers earning R300,000 – R500,000.
  • Skilled craftsmen like plumbers and electricians earning R200,000 – R400,000.

This cohort, though not wealthy, earns far more than average and lives reasonably comfortable middle class lifestyles.

The Working Class

Below the middle class is South Africa’s large working class, employed primarily in blue collar roles. Incomes here cluster in the R100,000 – R250,000 range:

  • Miners earn around R150,000 – R200,000 on average.
  • Manufacturing workers average around R120,000 – R180,000.
  • Construction workers earn R100,000 – R250,000.
  • Police and security guards earn around R150,000 – R220,000.
  • Many sales assistants, drivers, municipal workers, and informal vendors earn R100,000 – R180,000.

This working class has limited skills and credentials. Their wages only provide a very basic living standard.

The Unemployed

South Africa has an official unemployment rate of over 30%. Among these unemployed:

  • Some receive social grants providing at least R500 – R1000 per month.
  • Those living in households with some employed members get by on those incomes.
  • Some turn to illegal jobs like drug dealing, sex work, and poaching.
  • Others rely on piecemeal informal jobs, begging, or charity to survive.

Unemployment causes extreme financial stress. South Africa’s high crime rates stem partially from the large unemployed population.

Informal Sector and Piece Jobs

South Africa also has a large informal sector, with people cobbling together a living doing ad hoc temporary jobs and self-employment. These informal workers include:

  • Street vendors selling food, drinks, clothes, and more earn piecemeal incomes of R50 – R200 per day.
  • Unregistered minibus taxi drivers getting by trip-by-trip.
  • Domestic workers and gardeners working multiple part-time gigs.
  • Farmworkers and seasonal staff working temporary jobs.
  • Artisans, builders, and repairmen getting odd jobs and cash payments.

It is very difficult to earn a decent living in the informal sector, with incomes ranging from R500 – R2000 per month.

Rural and Agricultural Areas

In South Africa’s rural areas and agricultural regions, incomes tend to be very low:

  • Farmworkers earn around R2500 per month or less, living in poverty.
  • Many households rely on social grants and subsistence agriculture.
  • Work tends to be temporary and seasonal with high unemployment.
  • Remittances from migrant laborers provide a lifeline for some families.

Rural provinces like Limpopo and Eastern Cape have South Africa’s highest poverty rates, with limited formal employment opportunities.


In summary, South Africa is one of the most economically unequal countries in the world. The ultra-wealthy live in luxury while the unemployed live in deep poverty. In between is a gradient ranging from well-paid professionals and executives; government employees and tradesworkers with decent incomes; the working poor; and marginal informal workers and rural residents just scraping by.

While South Africa certainly produces wealth at the top, the country’s extreme inequality stems from apartheid’s legacy of dispossession, lack of skills and opportunity for the majority, high structural unemployment, and severe spatial inequality between regions.

Income Class Typical Income
Ultra-wealthy (billionaires, multi-millionaires) Billions, hundreds of millions
Executives, business owners Millions
Elite professionals (doctors, lawyers, tech workers) R1 million+
Corporate management, government R500,000 – R1.5 million
Skilled tradesworkers R200,000 – R500,000
Upper middle class R300,000 – R700,000
Working class R100,000 – R250,000
Unemployed Social grants, zero income
Informal workers R500 – R2000 per month
Rural poor Less than R2500 per month