Real wages at the Cape of Good Hope: A long-term perspective, 1652-1912 (see for most recent version)

de Zwart, P.

This paper has been published in a revised form at

Employing recently assembled wage and price data, this paper sketches the long-term development of real wages at the Cape of Good Hope, from its foundation in 1652 up to the unification of South Africa in 1910. The results show that real wages were consistently above subsistence level, and living standards were continuously improving throughout the period under discussion. The comparison with the most developed parts of Europe has shown that during the early decades of the colony’s existence, the Cape labourers had a relatively low purchasing power. Yet, by the end of the eighteenth century living standards began to close the gap, and during the nineteenth century, Cape living standards were on a par with those on the European continent. An analysis of growth rates suggests that during the second half of the seventeenth century growth was minimal. The eighteenth century was a period of steady (though not spectacular) growth of Cape living standards, while during the same century workers in other parts of the world saw their purchasing power diminish. The nineteenth century, on the other hand, was a period of a general rise of prosperity in Europe, in the light of which the Cape’s welfare growth seems exceptionally slow (in spite of secure property rights and resource windfalls). These findings contrast with the conventional view of South Africa’s economic history.