Martin Young
Martin Young

How much money is enough?

A R12 500 a month salary, much discussed in business, economic and political circles at present, is the wage fought for by striking platinum miners in the longest and most damaging strike in our country’s history. The recent agreement puts that figure within sight.

I couldn’t live on R12 500, and I’m sure most readers on this site for their own families’ needs would agree. For a platinum belt informal settlement dweller however, it is conceivable that R12 500 would comfortably pay for food, clothing, transport and minor luxuries for a small family. But it is unlikely that the families are small, and that this amount has to go far further than most of us can imagine. What we do know is that R12 500 is significantly more than most of the striking miners were earning beforehand. Will it however be enough?

How much money for anyone is “enough?” I know I don’t earn “enough”. The times when I had to worry about unexpected car repairs or whether I could afford a tank of petrol are happily gone, but an ideal of having 10 years’ worth of salary banked as an interest-gaining pension to maintain the quality of life I enjoy now is unachievable simply because I don’t earn enough. “Poor planning” you may argue, but things like good educations, family needs and simply enjoying life for the present got in the way. (Nevertheless I’m working on it — I have the luxury of having a “Plan B”.)


I look at the mind-blowing salaries of top executives of South African companies, and wonder whether they find these incomes adequate? A residence in Dainfern is not cheap, and a holiday house on Beachyhead Drive in Plett is even more expensive, but an additional flat in London or chalet in France may stretch even the few million rand a month salary package. And for the heavy-hitters at the top of the earnings charts even several monthly gorillas may not cover the cost of private jets to allow them to visit all their possessions on a regular basis.

Wayne Rooney now earns £300 000 a WEEK! How does one even begin to spend that much money? The trap however is that Rooney’s income potential will remain that just as long as his talent and/or fitness last, and on current form at the Fifa World Cup in Brazil Rooney is treading on thin ice. So to retain his current quality of life he will still need to put away more. So even Rooney earns too little for his long-term needs.

There is always going to be someone with a faster car, bigger boat or younger, prettier wife. Spare a thought for the executive chasing those dreams, bearing in mind that the acquisition of a younger, prettier wife may cost him half his possessions in the divorce court. On those terms and with those aspirations he still doesn’t earn enough.

What drives this urge to load oneself with bigger, better and more costly possessions? I believe the answer is “comparison” — that we too easily compare ourselves with others on a consistent basis and find ourselves lacking. The sense of lack drives the need to compete, and the easiest form of visible competition is by possessing bigger and better stuff. Each step up the ladder of success remains crowded by those competing with each other, and so the comparisons never stop, and the amount of money at hand is never enough. Each increase in income sees the goalposts set a little further away, and the next rung up the ladder is always a little higher.

The mega-wealthy are just as much at risk of this condition. Midway through writing this post I came across this about Hillary Clinton, arguably at one stage the most powerful woman in the world and still potentially a future president of the US, bemoaning Bill’s and her relative poverty with assets of “only” $100 million.

At the lower-income level this urge to compete is most bizarrely apparent in the actions of the Izikhothane, most of whom certainly do not have the incomes to indulge in these demonstrations of ostentatious wealth. But the message in these actions is “Compare yourself to me — I’m so wealthy I don’t need to worry about this stuff, I can burn it and throw it away”.

Comparison then is the problem, a true killer of joy and contentment. We compare ourselves to others too often based on what we think we lack, not on what we already have. The only real solution is to stop the relentless scrabble to the pinnacle of consumerism, where the guy with the most when he dies wins. The mantra of contentment, common to so many religions, is “Be happy with what you have got”. It’s easy enough in principle if you are well-housed, well-fed, educated and satisfyingly entertained. And yet so few of us get it right.

Back to the striking miners. I have little doubt that within a few months R12 500 will no longer be enough for them. The allure of new disposable income is to spend it, and the better prospects one rung up the ladder will soon see the question again resonate throughout that troubled industry: “How much money is enough?”

The answer, as it has always been, for them and for us all, is “Just a little bit more”.

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    • aim for the culprits

      a bit flippant to equate wants with needs. the poverty trap is real and many people, given the chance, claw their way out. capital has been proven to be very unfair in their treatment of the miners.

    • anton

      great analysis!

    • Monde

      What a muddled article trying to justify why miners should remain in their misery by the upper class. Third World countries continue to miserly pay workers that in First World countries would not be tolerated. London listed Lonmin would never justify paying these workers if the mine was in Ireland. Let’s not fool ourselves and compare them to Clinton, Rooney or Dainfern residents because that makes us sleep better at night when we all know that a rock drill miner’s dangerous job does not justify R12 500. It is not enough what they are being paid and that’s that.

    • Suntosh

      Great article. I agree.

      The root of comparison Is desire… as long as we desire material comforts, we are forever mentally oppressed.

    • LD Fox

      You are very smart will you be at the summit Emeka? Waste is a hallmark of the problems most of us encounter. Not knowing how to spend money is another. Africa is closer to the US than China, yet we have more money business with them. The money/power thing is such a dominant factor, when will we realize it is not what makes the world go round, it is what man has made it.

    • Sheppy

      For as long as the answer is “Just a little bit more” you will be a slave to money and consumerism. While more is always nice, the correct answer is “This is enough” – then you are truly starting to be financially free.

    • Someone

      I work for one of the biggest companies in this country (SA) and they are a huge multinational. I am in a senior position with lots of responsibility and I don’t earn much over R12500, so they should be happy. There are many people in this country that earn far less. Having a large family isn’t exactly the employers problem.

    • Paul Bluewater

      How much is enough?

      “Just a little more…” George Soros.

    • Garg Unzola

      Great article. R 12 500 per month is too much for any unskilled worker to earn and certainly about 3 times as much as I earned before I bothered making myself less useless to the job market with a few degrees.

      I could live on R 12 500 per month if I had to, and if I had to I would ensure that I don’t have 8 dependants or more needs than that amount could cover. No matter what my personal circumstances may be, it’s not fair to demand more of society or my employer merely because of my needs or wants.

      Striking is blackmail and extortion protected by our silly constitution and our more inane laws.

      The striking mine workers just sacrificed R 52 000 to gain a mere R 932 per month. Even by the end of this year, they would be looking at a loss of – R 46 000. Any way you look at it, that’s a dead loss and it’s puzzling to try and figure out what exactly they’d gained here.

      Evidently, it’s not so much about the money or personal gain as it is about people who are acting ways which do not benefit themselves or anyone else except the unions. In fact, their actions are detrimental to themselves and detrimental to the rest of us.

    • Dylan

      Martin, so you’re a socialist I take it? So, I’m just curious – what made you decide to avoid having more kids you could put through university?

    • CatHeader

      ‘Comparison then is the problem, a true killer of joy and contentment.’

      I think you’ll find that poverty kills joy and contentment even more efficiently.

      Comparing the desperation of people who literally do not have enough food to the consumerist ennui of people who want a fancier car is stunningly tone deaf.

    • Candice Holdsworth

      It’s so true. It gets to a point where material possessions no longer satisfy, and people who have a lot feel guilty for not being happier.

    • Cam Cameron

      When a worker knows — as the platinum miners now do, thanks to Amcu — that he will earn in his entire 40 year working career span what his CEO earns in only one three-month winter, then he knows he’s earning far too little. And he’s right.

    • Heinrich

      “Enough” is when all your needs can be met.
      Housing, food, health care, energy, education, recreation.

      R12500 will barely do for a family of three.

      There is as much excess as there is deprivation. How can we allow someone in the same organisation to get paid (not earn) up to 200 times more than the lowest paid?

      Cut the excesses and there will be more who will have “enough”.

      Against the background of the miner it is nauseating to see MP’s getting paid almost R1m per year, as well as many expensive perks, for doing something not nearly as challenging or sacrificial.

    • Grant

      This is so often only looked at from the angle of “how much they earn” instead of what unique skills they bring to the table, at what rate they produce, how much responsibility do they take and how much do they, individually, shape the world around them.

      I think the fact that Bill & Hillary Clinton are only worth $100mil is quite low considering that the two of them have shaped the global landscape through top leadership roles in the world’s greatest economy. Bill Clinton shaped the world. Should he be worth less than Patrice Motsepe or the Oppenheimers, tiddlers in a little South African pool tucked away at the Southern tip of nowhere?

      R12500 is a decent wage in South Africa. If you manage that money properly you can live a decent life especially considering you have access to free health care, free education and mining benefits and allowances.

    • Basil

      To any one unable to effectively manage money, no amount will ever be “enough”.

      Given any increase or amount of money, subject to mismanagement there will always be the cry for more to compensate for their deficiency and incapacity.

      Considering the greed vs the need factor.
      It’s not necessarily about “how much” or “enough” but rather what do I need either to sustain life-style vs life.

      Teach workers (everyone) frontier-frugality and a dose of economic reality.

    • Aragorn Eloff

      Martin, you’ve articulated the inherently flawed nature of capitalism perfectly. I don’t, however, think the answer should be a denialist anti-materialism; too often this is used either to maintain oppressive class relations (e.g., the caste system and the temple gifting in Eastern Buddhism) or to conceal class privilege (it’s most often wealthy New Age hippies who go on about not desiring material wealth).

      There’s also something deeply offensive – in a ‘let them eat cake’ kind of a way – about telling people who don’t have adequate access to healthcare, nutrition, running water, electricity and so forth that they should be content with their lot, surely?

      The answer is, I hope, to eradicate the problem at its root, and this will take more than the reforms of economic pop stars like Piketty or even the jubilees of Graeber.

    • Mpetu#

      More awareness of this competition types is surely needed. This is a great article it’s impressive keep it up.

    • Baz

      This is a contraversal issue in most spheres of life.
      Unfortunatlely, MONEY does buy the food, the holiday, and gives every individual
      the financial freedom to obtain what they desire… it maintainance of any kind,
      furthering one’s status in life.
      Without sufficient inflated monatary at hand, one is totally stuffed to do as one pleases
      or needs.Lastly, the average Joe Soap, must have a change of mind set on Money
      and maybe move forward to obtain immediate goals in life. Work deligent and the shortfall will come.

    • J.J.

      I would say that R12500 is just about enough – a good balance.

    • DLC

      You have hit on an extremely important question. One book that I highly recommend is ‘Your Money or Your Life’ by Joe Dominguez and Vicky Robin. Among other things, they show how our consumer society socializes us into never being satisfied. They also describe the fulfillment curve. Basically, this is a curve which starts by increasing as one’s basic needs, then our comforts, and finally our luxuries are met. However, there comes a point where we have all we could ask for. Beyond this point, as we acquire more, our sense of satisfaction and well-being actually start to diminish. Of course, this is true of major possessions, but we may experience this on a smaller scale with eating or drinking. You can also see it with children at Christmas. The first few toys bring much joy, but after they have become sated, the complaints and fighting start.

      One of the secrets is finding for ourselves where our point of ‘enough’ is. It is also important not to compare ourselves with others, or more importantly to stop impressing others. Once we have found our own point of enough, we may become happier, more satisfied, and start to save money rather than spending it things that do not serve us. We may even start realizing that we need a lot less than we think.

    • DLC

      I may also add that I live in Japan, which has one of the lowest worker-to-executive salary ratios in the world. Sadly, this is eroding as the bosses start to model their business on American mores.But it still has one of the lowest crime rates in the world. And for those who want to cry ‘socialist’, it is hardly a hotbed of leftwing politics either. It just makes sense: train people properly, pay them a livable wage, keep them loyal to the company, let capital flow into the economy rather than stashing billions offshore like some depraved hoarder, live according to one’s needs and means (yes, by all means have a Ferrari or a big house if that’s what you like, but have them and enjoy them for the right reasons, not just to impress others), and I believe there will be enough to go around one way or another.

    • Stephen Browne

      I wonder if the day will come when we will look back on these inhumane [how much is enough], [you should only get exactly what you’re worth], and [I’ll pay you only as much as I need to be competitive] arguments the way we look back on workhouses during the turn of the 20th century. Well-intentioned (possibly) but brutally inadequate.

      People repulse me.

    • Aragorn Eloff

      @Garg: “Striking is blackmail and extortion protected by our silly constitution and our more inane laws.”

      Yes, and what have the strikers ever done for *us*? Well, apart from the eight hour day, workplace safety, stopping weapons from being shipped to warring countries, pushing for an end to gender-based pay disparities in the workplace, building collective solidarity, empowering the voices of those often marginalised in class stratified society…I guess not much really. But yeah, I guess you’d probably have strike-broken the 1888 London matchgirl strike or encouraged scabbing 😀

      And yes, it’s hard to understand the gains made in the platinum strikes if you boil it down to a simple numerical problem; if you see the world and the people in it in these terms (i.e., as self-satisficing rational agents) then it’s also obvious why you can’t get just why the miners see their victory as legitimate 😉

    • Momma Cyndi

      How many stories have we all heard about someone winning the lotto and being dirt poor a few years later? Same with sports people and actors who earn huge amounts of money and die in poverty. The more you have, the more you want.

      A major part of the problem with the miners is not ‘want’, it is ‘need’. That is due mainly to unemployment and migrant labour. It is hard enough to support ten unemployed relatives back home but, supporting two families (one at the work site and another back in the village) must be a huge financial strain. Seeing the boss arrive in his fancy new waBenzi must be difficult when you are worried about how to buy your sister’s children school shoes without your own children going bare foot.

    • http://none Eduardo

      I agree with Basil: “To any one unable to effectively manage money, no amount will ever be “enough”.” I personally know people with relatively good income living in perpetual debt because of their lack of planning, overspending and the fiction that credit cards provide free goods or services. For my part, I try to live with my means, which are less than the amount of this article. There have been times in my life with very little income but I look at them with satisfaction and even nostalgia because they provided me with experiences that material things never give.

    • nguni

      I wouldn’t work as a rock driller for 10x R12500 per month, but that’s just me and my claustrophobia.. Its MUCH more than the average office worker takes home! Most people, lets say a couple and two kids, could get by on that in the township setting. But life isn’t so simple and there are always lots of kids, several women, etc. but that means they choose poverty instead of an ordered lifestyle. No reason for the mines to pay for that. Not that I defend the top execs salary, there should be caps and if they don’t like it they should go elsewhere.

    • Uffa

      Good debate Martin. In Sweden everybody earns similar salaries and the mayor lives nexr to the dustman. The discrepency in earnings between top and bottom dog in an organisation is cause for serious unrest. Envy and false aspirations in this country are not helped by the adverts on TV which display unrealistic American-type lifestyles and promote the ‘keep up with the Jones’ mentlity.
      On another tack- why has our county’s wealth been in the hands of a few cartels. The minerals-gold and diamonds and platinum – should have been mined and the profits distributed to every one in this country. Then there would have been no poverty , better health and education and less desparate crime. Why should one tribe who happen to live on the ground above a mineral own it and why should the Oppenheimers and De Beers hijack the wealth that belongs to all South Africans?

    • Garg Unzola

      I’m afraid you’re going to misconstrue this is a problem of capitalism, once again, despite the mining industry being a tightly run protection racket all the way through from the labour it employs to the CEOs that run the show.

      It’s not a question of arithmetic, which is the delusion when one compares the CEO’s salary with that of the wage worker. The CEO gets fired thanks to an incident like Marikana, whereas wage workers very rarely have their jobs on the line due to bad press. In fact, the ‘success’ of their blackmail depends on bad press.

      Basil has hit the nail on the head: If you cannot manage R 12 500, you’re not going to manage much better on more.

      Perhaps you are not familiar with the kinds of benefits that mines give those communities? This includes health care and free education. Also inadequate, I guess?

      It’s comically lackadaisical to try and claim all the working environment improvements of the past hundreds of years for unions. Always take the credit and never take the blame? When it comes to Marikana, it’s obviously the violence inherent in the Big Machine, but when it comes to a 5 day work week, it’s obviously those chainsmaking martyrs who get the fedora in the hat?

      I truly wish our socio-economical problems were so easy to decipher. To me, that’s yet another case of neat, plausible and wrong.

    • Mtshayisa

      I wish is for those who earn like the presidents and kings, exchange just for once in their lives, and feel the reality of being in the receiving hand of this pittance. A R12500 earned today is even worse than a R450 earned in 1986.If you were working then, you’d also understand why workers demanded a living wage of R1500 in 1988/9, which they got after it had no real value anyway. The people here are not even comparing themselves to any people earning better or affording better, but merely asking for a living wage, to afford the basics. When will the capitalist and those in power realise that? and respect it.

    • aim for the culprits

      having arm muscles the size of legs, working in dangerous confined places, bearing excessive heat, operating dangerous machinery… how is that unskilled compared to moving numbers around on a spreadsheet between coffee breaks?

    • Yadang

      Maslow’s hierarchy of needs… Hertzberg’s Two-factor/Hygiene theory anyone? … Seems this is an attempt to generate new theory where there is none.

    • http://none Benson Phiri

      My comment comes from Leo Tolstoy “He’s richest who is satisfied with little.”

    • Dinks

      The fact is that the cost of employment by Lonmin was about R10500 per month BEFORE the strike and before the already agreed increment of about 8%.

      What the strikers’ leadership was formenting the workers to was an in-the-pocket cash payment of R12500, excluding all benefits and taxes.

      The existing salary, for a hard and dangerous job, albeit totally unskilled and unqualified, was already sufficiently high that for every one decrying that income there would undoubtedly be a hundred applicants. To get perspective this is at the same level as 25% of the supposedly priviledged Whites, with probably much higher qualifications and experience.

      It was stated that for every such mineworker there would be an average of ten dependents. This strikes to the root of the problem – reckless reproduction without ensuring the means to support, educate and house their offspring, and then “demanding” that they should be paid to address that responsibility.

      The consequences of these demands are lower local and international investment in mining and other unskilled labour-intensive work, a move to mechanisation and decreased income for all. Furthermore, the downturn thus created in the economy would directly significantly decrease taxes and thus the poor, needy and deserving would suffer more.

      South Africa, under the “leadership” of Zuma, the ANC and under the yoke of the unions is faster and faster becoming an international basket case in economics, health, law,…