Compared to the rest of the continent, South Africa is a pariah. On the one hand, it has a monopoly on the excitement and beauty of sub-Saharan Africa, offering rich landscapes and national parks teeming with biodiversity, while on the other hand it offers some of Africa’s highest-quality urban living, spread mainly between its three capital cities – Cape Town, Bloemfontein and Pretoria – plus the metropoles of Johannesburg (Africa’s eighth-largest city) and Durban.
But how does it fare in terms of the cost of living? Well, while it is fair to say the cost of living in South Africa is more affordable than in other parts of the world (particularly developed Western nations), this does not necessarily make it cheap. In this article, we’ll explore the cost of living in South Africa for expats, looking at some of the costs you can expect to pay and how the cost of living crisis in South Africa has affected the country.
The cost of living in South Africa
South Africa is also emerging as a highly-advanced nation attracting an ever-increasing number of expats to take part in its modernising economy – which, with an overall GDP of US$419 million, is the second-strongest in Africa (just behind Nigeria).
South Africa’s rapidly-growing tertiary sector is just one of the many reasons the country has attracted over 4 million expats. The diversity of its culture is reflected in the fact South Africa has eleven official languages, including English, Afrikaans and Zulu.
According to recent data, the cost of living in South Africa is 43% cheaper than in the United Kingdom. Expats moving to South Africa will therefore find the cost of everyday essentials to be significantly cheaper than in most Western countries, although expats moving from other parts of the region should be mindful that South Africa is one of the 10 most expensive countries in Africa.
This is especially true for expats moving to the major metropolitan areas. Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town and Durban rank as the fifth, sixth, eighth and ninth most expensive cities in Africa, respectively. They also command some of the highest cost of living prices on the continent.
The good news is that expats in South Africa can expect to earn a great salary. The average monthly salary in South Africa in 2022 was R24,813/US$1,364, and this has been increasing in spite of the ongoing cost of living crisis. Expats working in South Africa’s most thriving industries, which include international trade, business services and community services, can expect to take home even bigger pay packets.
However, these expats should also be mindful that taxes in South Africa can be quite high, and operate on a two-part structure. There is a flat rate on earnings up to a certain bracket, then a percentage of income within that bracket, as shown here:
Income tax payable (%)
Note: This includes all income, including that from rental properties and other business interests outside of your main employment.
The silver lining is that South Africa has a double taxation agreement with 81 countries including the United Kingdom and the USA, meaning expats will only pay South African tax rates on their South Africa-sourced incomes.
But none of this should worry you. Most expats will find the cost of living in South Africa to be very affordable.
To illustrate, these are the costs of everyday essentials in South Africa:
Average cost in South Africa (USD)*
*Data correct as of March 2023, Numbeo
Effects of the cost of living crisis in South Africa
South Africa has been hit hard by the worldwide cost of living crisis. Inflation soared throughout 2022, from 2% up to a peak of 7.8% in July. As of 2023, it currently sits at around 7%. This is pushing up the cost of everyday essentials in South Africa to record highs.
For instance, the cost of food in South Africa has shot up by 14%, with a loaf of bread now costing 20% more than in 2021.
South Africa has refrained from condemning Russia for their invasion of Ukraine, ostensibly as a means to avoid placing sanctions on one of their biggest suppliers. Indeed, South Africa is heavily reliant on both Russian and Ukrainian imports, especially wheat and cereals. South Africa imports US$11.7 million of wheat from Ukraine and US$26 million of cereals from Russia. As a result of the war, supply lines were disrupted throughout 2022, causing the prices of these commodities to go up. The impact of these price rises fell back on consumers.
Meanwhile, a declining Rand against a soaring Dollar has made it difficult for South Africa to purchase oil, which has in turn caused transportation and fuel prices to increase by 10%. The price for a litre of petrol reached a record high of R25.49/US$1.40 in November 2022. A shortage of oil has also pushed up the price of energy in South Africa – in January 2023, the national utility provider Eksom announced that it will increase its tariffs by 18.65% starting from April.
All of these economic shockwaves have hit the poorest South Africans the hardest. The daily cost of living in South Africa has soared as South Africans find their monthly expenses, including their mortgages, significantly higher than they were two years ago.
Expats earning a good salary should be able to ride out the cost of living crisis in South Africa. However, they will start to see the cost of everyday items going up considerably, which could make it harder for them.
Average rent in South Africa
The cost to rent a property in South Africa will depend on which part of the country you choose to live. Rent in a small town or in the countryside will be considerably cheaper than in one of South Africa’s major metropolitan areas. The cost of rent in South Africa is also rising. Still, the average rent in South Africa remains considerably cheaper than in other parts of the world.
The average rent across the whole of South Africa is around R7,900/US$431 per month. The cheapest regions to rent are in the North West, Eastern Cape and the Free State. The most expensive regions are the Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and the Northern Cape.
The average rent in South African cities is slightly higher and will depend on the size of house or apartment you choose. As a ballpark, here is what you should expect to pay for rent and utilities in a city centre apartment in South Africa:
Average rent, small apartment (US$)
Average rent, family apartment (US$)
While the price of rent may be affordable, expats must also think about their personal safety. Unfortunately, crime rates in South Africa are very high. It ranks as the fourth highest country in the world for crime, and the fourth lowest on the world safety index. As an expat presumably earning a good salary, you are likely to attract the attention of burglars, muggers and possibly even hijackers.
For this reason, many expats choose to live in secure residential facilities, which are protected by 24/7 armed security patrols. This will naturally command a higher price, but the pay-off is that these communities tend to be much more luxurious, with many offering their own swimming pools and private gardens. The rent for a secure lodging can range from anywhere between R8,000/$450 to R80,000/$4,400 per month.
Cost of education in South Africa
The education system in South Africa is divided into three levels: primary education up to age 14, secondary education up to age 16, and tertiary education.
Tuition is free in all public schools in South Africa, however the quality of education is poor. South Africa ranked just 71st in the 2018 UNESCO Education Index.
The quality of education tends to be higher in major cities, however, due to a lack of government funding it is sometimes expected that parents will contribute fees to help the school. These fees tend to range from between R8,000/US$450 to R20,000/US$1,100 per year.
To ensure their children get the best education, many expats opt to send their children to one of over 2,000 private or international schools in South Africa.
Private and international schools in South Africa can be expensive, and fees are currently on the increase. Kearsney College, one of the most prestigious private schools in South Africa, now charges R225,000/$12,300 for one year’s tuition. However, there are many far cheaper alternatives – the average fee for a private school in South Africa is around R30,000/US$1,700 to R70,000/US$3,900 per year.
South Africa’s 55 international schools can be found in Johannesburg and Cape Town. The majority of these schools use the British system of education, however you will also find international schools that use the French, German, American and IB systems. The fees for international schools in these two cities range between:
Lowest fee (US$)
Highest fee (US$)
What is the cost of higher education in South Africa?
South Africa has a number of universities spread throughout its main cities. Of these, four are in the top 500 worldwide according to QS World University Rankings 2023, with the University of Cape Town ranking as South Africa’s highest-ranking university.
The amount you will pay for university tuition fees in South Africa will depend on the university you attend and the type of course you study. The average cost for university in South Africa is R55,900/US$3,550 per year, however these fees can reach as high as R93,850/US$5,130.
Cost of transport in South Africa
While its public transport infrastructure is somewhat behind the times, South Africa is at least home to Africa’s most comprehensive rail system, making it easy to get between major cities by rail.
However, this rail system does not extend to all parts of the country, meaning many people – particularly in the North – are reliant on public buses or South Africa’s preferred method of transport, taxibuses.
South Africa’s four major regions (Gauteng, Durban, Eastern Cape and Western Cape) all have their own metro systems known as Metrorail. These collectively consist of 471 stations, 2,228 kilometres of track and carry 1.7 million passengers per day. The price for a one-way ticket on a Metrorail service starts at just R7.50/US$0.40, with weekly tickets starting from R47/US$2.57.
Over 60% of South Africans use taxibuses as their primary form of public transport. These are a cross between private taxis and buses. While very cheap, they are also widely considered to be quite dangerous, not least because various ‘turf wars’ have broken out between the unregulated operators.
Many expats therefore choose to own or lease their own private car. This is widely considered the safest and most convenient form of transport in South Africa. While the price of petrol is on the rise, expats will still find fuel to be fairly affordable.
All in all, expats will find the cost of transport in South Africa to be very cheap compared to other parts of the world:
Average cost in South Africa (US$)*
*As of March 2023, Numbeo
Cost of healthcare in South Africa
Healthcare in South Africa can be quite expensive without health insurance.
While South Africa does have a public healthcare system, it does not offer universal coverage. Instead, the government subsidises 40% of the cost – the rest must come out of the patient’s own pocket. While most fees are relatively small, the costs for major treatments can quickly rack up:
Type of treatment
It is also worth noting that the quality of healthcare in South Africa is very poor. With an average life expectancy of just 64.4 years, South Africa is by far the weakest OECD nation when it comes to healthcare. In fact South Africa ranked a lowly 87th in the world for the quality of its healthcare in the 2020 Legatum Prosperity Index.
What are the reasons behind this? The simplest answer is that South Africa’s public healthcare system is woefully underfunded, not only meaning it lacks staff and resources, but also produces long waiting lists.
Indeed, South Africa has the lowest number of nurses per person of any OECD country, while up to 80% of South Africa’s doctors choose to work in the private sector – leaving the public healthcare sector perennially short-staffed, lacking experience and generally of a lower quality overall.
For this reason, many people choose to purchase an international health insurance policy that allows them to opt for private healthcare while living in South Africa.
Not only will this help you to manage the cost of yours and your family’s ordinary healthcare needs, it will also grant you access to South Africa’s excellent private healthcare sector. And, should you require major treatment while living in South Africa, you won’t need to worry about paying out-of-pocket fees.
Staying on budget while living in South Africa
If you’re thinking of relocating to South Africa, you’re in for a treat. With its golden coastlines, bustling cities and intrepid hinterlands, life in South Africa is a constant adventure. Best of all, as an expat, you are likely to find the cost of living in South Africa to be very affordable.
Even so, it’s important to plan ahead and learn some best-practice budgeting tips before moving to this awesome country.
Here are some of our top tips for expats to help them stay on top of their budgets:
1/ Know how much you’ll take home after tax
As we’ve seen, taxes in South Africa can be fairly substantial for high-earners. If you are moving to South Africa to work for a South African country, it’s important to calculate how much of your paycheque will go into your pocket after income tax has been deducted. If you will be working for a foreign company, you will need to make sure that country has a double taxation agreement with South Africa and that you are registered as a foreign worker – it’s best to seek professional advice for this, especially if you intend to settle in South Africa as a resident.
2/ Choose secure accommodation – and work out the price
As an expat in South Africa, you must make yours and your family’s safety your number one priority. Theft and violent crime is not uncommon, especially in the major metropolitan cities. Therefore, you should opt for secure accommodation in a gated community with an active security patrol. High-profile expats such as C-suite executives may also want to look into hiring a bodyguard while they are out-and-about. These may push up your ordinary living costs, but – as they say – you can’t put a price on safety.
3/ Know your monthly bills in advance
The cost of living in South Africa is going up. Energy prices are set to rise, and the price of fuel is at record levels. Before moving to South Africa, you should be sure that you will have enough income to manage your utilities payments – and that you are prepared for any further price increases. If you are worried that your finances may not be secure, it’s worth considering income protection insurance – this will provide a lifeline if you are unable to work. As an expat, it’s also important to factor in the cost of yours and your family’s international health insurance.
4/ Stick to a budget
Once you have worked out your monthly outgoings, including your transport, education and grocery shopping costs, you’ll know how much you’ll have left to play with. Squirrel a little away each month, just in case – then make the most of the rest! With so much on offer, from safaris to coastal excursions, and sightseeing around all the major cities, you’ll find plenty of activities to keep you busy as you settle into your new life in South Africa.
Check out our guides to taking out international health insurance to prepare for your move to South Africa:
We’re here to help you make the most of your time in South Africa
Our redesigned health insurance plan for Africa is tailor-made for expats looking to move to this part of the world.
Choose from four tiers of coverage to suit your needs, and enjoy total peace of mind knowing you’re covered for everything from cancer treatment to in-patient hospital care. At William Russell, we are also proud to offer medical evacuations (medevacs) as standard with all our policies. This means, if emergency life or limb-saving treatment is not available locally, we will transport you to a different country (or even your home country) to a high-quality medical facility. We have a 100% success rate with medevacs in Africa. See how we helped our members Roger and Yvonne with a medevac from Malawi to South Africa here.
With over 40,000 high-quality private medical facilities in our network, you can be sure you’ll always receive the best treatment. Speak to us today to find out more about our new and improved health insurance plan for expats in Africa.