Mail Online’s claim of 400,000+ poor whites in South Africa incorrect

Comments 8

The UK Mail Online claimed that more than 400,000 white South Africans live in poverty. National data suggests that the number is less than a quarter of that.

UPDATE: According to Statistics South Africa's most recent estimates, there were 47,494 white people living below the poverty line in 2015. This represented 1% of the white population.

With a picture spread, the UK Mail Online documented the “squalid conditions” of South Africa’s “white squatter camps” earlier this year.

The first picture shows a white woman sitting on a makeshift bench below the tiny window of her corrugated iron shack. In another, a grey-bearded white man in a wheelchair sits in the shade of a tree with a goat urinating next to him.

Later two white children smile at the camera. “One is barefoot,” the caption reads, “and walks across the scratchy, sharp earth without any protection.”

The people in these pictures, from a squatter camp in Munsieville in Gauteng province, are part of a group of “more than 400,000 white South Africans [who] are thought to live in poverty”, according to the Mail Online.

Is the figure correct?

Three different degrees of poverty

In April 2008, Jacob Zuma, soon-to-be president of South Africa, visited a community of 30 poor white people living in an informal settlement west of Pretoria. Photo: AFP
In April 2008, Jacob Zuma, soon-to-be president of South Africa, visited a community of 30 poor white people living in an informal settlement west of Pretoria. Photo: AFP

Africa Check tweeted the journalist who wrote the story and emailed the Mail Online’s editor, but did not get a reply to our questions about the source of the claim.  

It seems, though, that the Mail Online referred to a measurement of absolute poverty to work out how many white people are poor.

The article said that “those living in squalid conditions are forced to survive on around £28.99 a month”. (Note: At the time of publishing, this was equal to about R630 per month.)

South Africa’s national statistics agency, Statistics South Africa (Stats SA), has three absolute poverty lines which capture different degrees of poverty, lecturer at Stellenbosch University’s economics department, Marisa von Fintel, previously told Africa Check.

“The food poverty line captures their estimate of what is needed in terms of food intake in order to survive, while the lower and upper bounds include the cost of other basic living needs,” Von Fintel explained.

How poverty is measured

The figure used by the Mail Online – of about R630 per month – does not reflect South Africa’s current national poverty lines, which were rebased last year.

The highest poverty line is the upper poverty line. It is currently R779 per person per month (in March 2011 prices).

Below this level someone will have to sacrifice buying some essential food in order to afford basic non-food needs like shelter or education (or vice versa). Above this level a person is considered able to buy necessary food and basic non-food items and is therefore classified as “non-poor”.

The points at which poverty lines are placed can look arbitrary. For example, someone earning R778 per month is considered to be living in poverty while her neighbour earning R780 is not.

However, academics have argued that “for purposes of analysis one frequently needs to draw the line somewhere”.

42,115 poor white people

So is the Mail Online’s figure of more than 400,000 poor white people supported by data from the national poverty lines? The short answer is no.

Stats SA’s living conditions survey manager, Patricia Koka, used their 2010/2011 Income and Expenditure Survey to check the numbers for us. The survey has been conducted every 5 years since 2000 and just over 25,000 households were surveyed most recently.

Koka told Africa Check that 42,115 white South Africans were estimated to have lived on less than R779 per month in 2011.

This represented 0.9% of the total white population. In comparison, 63.2% of black people, 37% of colored people and 6.9% of Indian/Asian people were living in poverty.

Population group Number % of population group
African/Black   25,311,744 63.2%
Coloured 1,676,144 37%
Indian/Asian 87,969 6.9%
White 42,115 0.9%
South Africa 27,117,973 53.8%

(Note: Stats SA uses consumption data – as opposed to income data – to calculate the number of people living in poverty. That is because it may “better reflect a household’s actual standard of living and ability to meet basic needs”, Koka told Africa Check.)

But is poverty underestimated?

Poverty is extremely high in South Africa but proportionately, very few white people live in poverty compared to other race groups. Photo: AFP/JOHN WESSELS
Poverty is extremely high in South Africa but proportionately, very few white people live in poverty compared to other race groups. Photo: AFP/JOHN WESSELS

Some academics think that Stats SA’s poverty lines might underestimate poverty in South Africa.

Research published last year by the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU) suggested that the upper poverty line should actually be R1,042 per person per month in 2011 prices – not the lower figure of R779 used by Stats SA.

The difference is a methodological one. When Stats SA calculated its upper poverty line it decided to exclude some people’s spending habits which seemed very different from the norm – for example, extremely high or extremely low.

Josh Budlender was one of the authors of the SALDRU report. He is now a research fellow at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa.

Budlender told Africa Check that – while an adjustment was necessary – Stats SA may have overcorrected when they excluded these outliers.

He explained that while the issue of outliers was genuine, “the adjustment was too drastic, and actually made the poverty line more unrealistic than if they hadn’t adjusted it”.

“SALDRU used a different method to adjust for outliers, and ended up with a poverty line of R1,042 per month, which we think is a more methodologically correct figure,” Budlender said.

1.8% of white people poor

But even a higher poverty line doesn’t support the Mail Online’s claim.

Using Stats SA’s 2010/2011 Income and Expenditure Survey, Budlender extracted the number of people who reported that they consumed less that R1,042 per month.

Using this higher poverty line, the number of white people estimated to be living in poverty increased to 82,573. This equalled 1.8% of the white population then.

In comparison, 73% of black people and 48.1% of coloured people lived under this poverty line.

Population group Number % of population group
African/Black 29,236,632 73%
Coloured 2,175,417 48.1%
Indian/Asian 150,409 11.8%
White 82,573 1.8%
South Africa 31,645,031 62.8%

Conclusion: Latest estimates showed less than 82,600 poor whites in SA

The Mail Online’s claim that more than 400,000 white South Africans live in poverty is incorrect.

Data from Statistics South Africa’s 2010/2011 Income and Expenditure Survey showed that 42,115 white people lived below the official upper bound poverty line of R779 per person per month. This represented 0.9% of white people in 2011.

When using a higher poverty line – which some researchers argue is more appropriate – the estimate increased to 82,573.

Poverty is extremely high in South Africa. But proportionately, very few white people live in poverty compared to other race groups.

Edited by Anim van Wyk



Additional reading

FACTSHEET: What is poverty?

Do “more than 26 million” people in South Africa live in absolute poverty?

Do only 2.5% of black South Africans live on less than $2 a day?

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Comment on this report

Comments 8
  1. By Pieter Calitz


    How do you know Stats SA’s stats are not wrong?

    With only 25 328 households across the country over a period of
    12 months.measured which is a very small number, how do you know that they did not completely miss out white poor people?

    Reply Report comment
    • By Africa Check

      Hi Pieter. Thanks for your comment. Numerous poverty researchers recommended that we use the 2010/2011 Income and Expenditure Survey. It’s the most recent poverty data from Statistics South Africa and has the largest sample size we could find. It’s the best we have to use at the moment.

      If better data emerges we will update this report.

      Reply Report comment
    • By Nic

      Its not just that its the largest sample size, all similarly credible data on household income points to similar numbers for white poverty in SA. Also, Stats SA’s methodology, and those of other research groups, is fairly robust and at most is making small errors. Simply put, white poverty is not a significant problem.

      Reply Report comment
  2. By Mikael Grut

    What is so shameful is not that there are poor whites, because there are also poor people in the other racial groups in South Africa, but the fact that they are discriminated against in jobs, public housing and other forms of social welfare. The other South African whites do not like to talk about the subject, because the poor whites are paying the price for apartheid on their behalf.
    Mikael Grut
    London, England

    Reply Report comment
  3. By Wesley Van Der Heyde

    Thank you for fact checking this malicious statement issued by the BBC. Poverty is reprehensible when it can be avoided. What concerns me is the fact that it has been used in a racial context to solicit compassion for one segment of society.
    The implied rationale of the author of this report is therefore to highlight the plight of “400 000” white people as dire while not ascribing the same condition to the 29 million people in similar circumstances; this is an inherently racist thing to do if the only separating fact is color of the individuals skin.

    Reply Report comment
  4. By andi

    I am a poor south African white, I earn 7000 rand a month, yes u will say this is more than a lot of south Africans earn and you are right, but I cant live for free I have to pay rent of 3000 and school fees for my kids of 2000. this leaves me with 2000 rand a month for food and clothes and anything else, I cant survive I feel like dying. and yes I am an educated person I have a B.A degree in english

    Reply Report comment

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