And while the top 10% of the population owns around 86% of all the country’s wealth, the picture is about more than the top and the bottom. Some of the most damning findings concern how concentrated wealth is within the top 10%. The wealthiest 3 500 people (0.01% of the adult population), for instance, own more than the most impoverished 32 million people.
Inequality is about more than income
When South Africa is called the world’s most unequal society, it is usually a reference to the country’s income inequality – the disparities between what people may be earning.
A scale between 0 and 1 called the Gini coefficient is usually used to measure this. It works like this: the closer a score is to 1, the greater the income inequality. So, in a country where the score is 0, everybody earns exactly the same. Perfect equality. In a country with a score of 1, one person earns everything, and everybody else earns nothing. Absolute inequality. South Africa’s Gini coefficient is 0.65 – a staggering score by any international comparison.
Wealth, however, is typically more unequally distributed than income. Where the top 10% of South Africans earn up to 65% of all income, the research finds that they own 85.6% of all wealth.
But what is wealth? Basically, it is a stock of assets – including land, deposits, shares in companies, life insurance policies and pensions – built up over time and often passed down over generations. As a result, wealth reveals inherited economic privileges in ways that income cannot.
In a country like South Africa, still newly emerged from white minority rule, understanding how advantage is inherited is crucial. Wealth inequality, according to Chatterjee, shows “how apartheid’s legacy manifests into the present”, and the persistent chasm between how much people own might suggest “that the structures of the economy have not been changed sufficiently to be more inclusive.”