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About the (un)affordability of life

If interest-rate and price hikes continue as they have last year, life will look bleak for many South Africans in 2008. It’s the most basic things in life, the kind of costs that no one can really escape, that suddenly got increasingly expensive — in short: food, petrol and rent. Our quality of life is about to go down the drain.

Petrol prices are at an all-time high. While only a few years ago R100 would get me far at the petrol station, it now takes R250 to fill up the tank of my little 1.4 Polo. Driving long distances has always been part of life in this spacious country of ours, but many of us now have to consider seriously if we can afford to make “non-vital” trips, like a day’s outing to a nature reserve or a visit to friends who live a couple of hours down the coast.

When grocery shopping lately, I almost got a heart attack at the cashier. While I used to be able to do my weekly food shopping for between R100 and R150, I now have to cough up about R250 for the same amount of food. That’s at least R400 more a month, just for basic groceries. When it comes to food prices, South Africa definitely seems to have caught up with the so-called First World. A friend of mine who spent her Christmas holidays in Switzerland, one of the most expensive places on the globe, found that supermarket food prices were pretty much the same as in South Africa — but the average Swiss person earns much more than the average South African.

Another friend who cued at a South African supermarket till witnessed a worker in front of her trying to purchase a loaf of white bread with a R5 coin — but the bread came to R5,50. In utter disbelief, the worker continued to hold out his coin to the cashier, who in turn continued to demand another 50 cents. Eventually, the person standing in the queue behind the worker helped out by paying the extra cash.

All my middle-class friends are talking about being on budgets, struggling with their bonds, being unable afford to eat in restaurants and wondering how they will be able to pay their kids’ school fees or if they will ever be able to save enough money to retire. Some will have to sell their properties if interest rates go up again.

Our only saviour: the credit card. We have become a credit-card nation that trusts in debt, living from one monthly repayment to the other, desperately trying to ignore the mountain of debt we slowly but surely build up as we are approved for yet another card that promises easy access to money. (Hopefully, the new Credit Act will slow down the pace with which the average South African accumulates debt, but the measure might have come too late.)

But we, the middle class, are the lucky ones, of course. If R10 doesn’t even get you a loaf of bread and a litre of milk any more, how will the majority of South Africans afford to put food on the table? Seeing that the poverty line is usually drawn at a person living under $1 a day (currently less than R7), the estimated 60% of South Africans living under this same poverty line are able to buy only one litre of milk and one loaf of bread every two days — and that’s if they do not have any other expenses.

I am not an expert in economic policy, but I can’t but wonder what South Africa has got itself into. Wasn’t alleviation of poverty — or shouldn’t it have been — one of the government’s primary objectives? Yet here we are, with a cost of living as high as never before while the standard of living is on a speedy downward spiral — with the poorest of the population, as always, affected worst.