How much your life is worth in South Africa

 ·21 May 2024

Placing a value on human life can be incredibly difficult and even controversial.

However, these cold numbers are an absolute must when determining the cost-benefit of infrastructure, environmental, medical, and insurance projects and budgeting for social interventions or getting insurance.

Knowing the monetary value of human life is important for governments and policymakers to make key decisions. The figure is also used for statistical calculations related to various industries, such as insurance, medicine, the environment, and infrastructure.

In these cases, most industries turn to an economic term called the value of a statistical human life (VSL), which effectively represents how much income (or wealth) individuals are willing to exchange for small changes in mortality risks.

If, for example, 100,000 people were each willing to spend R100 to decrease the chances of mortality, the estimated statistical value of a single human life would be R10 million (100,000 x R100).

A VSL is also used to determine the economic impact of deaths in the country, such as those lost to disease, road accidents, and other causes.

If you’ve ever heard an NGO say that road accidents or alcohol abuse cost the economy x-billion each year, it’s very likely that the VSL has been used to determine this.

Pinning down the number, however, presents its own challenges.

The value of a life in South Africa

A widely cited figure published in the South African Medical Journal in 2014 puts the value of a life in South Africa at R3.5 million.

This is the figure that was used to determine the economic harm done by alcohol abuse in the country at the time and was repeated in many reports.

But this is just one data point.

In 2006, the World Health Organisation determined the economic impact of TB deaths in South Africa, using a baseline VSL of $230,000 (R1.6 million at the exchange rates of the time)

In a 2012 document looking at the environmental impact of Eskom’s failure to comply with South African emission standards, Greenpeace cited OECD values on VSL. This averaged out at R12 million.

However, more recent (2022) data from researchers and statisticians from the University of Cape Town challenged the VSL methodology, positing that values for the disability-adjusted life-year (DALY) are a better proxy.

DALY represents the loss of the equivalent of one year of full health. Citing other DALY methodologies, the researchers noted that, in 2020 prices, this puts the value of a South African life between R49,400 and R1.9 million – or a more ‘realistic’ figure of around R460,000.

The researchers said this value is the most accurate because it “represents a South African government willingness-to-pay estimate for averting a South African death”.

“As such, we believe that this figure is the most credible and robust estimate of the value that could currently be assigned to a South African life.”

Life insurers get more complex

According to Nedbank, when it comes to life insurance, a lot more goes into consideration when estimating the value of a life.

And looking at one’s personal circumstances and making improvements can also be key in lowering life insurance premiums, the group said.

These are the main factors insurers will look at:

  • Age

Life insurance is less expensive when one is younger and healthier.

“If you apply for life insurance only when you’re older, you may also have to undergo strict medical tests to establish your state of health accurately, and your premiums are likely to be higher,” said Nedbank.

  • Type of cover

Premium pricing also depends on how comprehensive the cover is. Policies that cover death benefits will only cost more if one adds funeral and disability cover.

  • Health

People who don’t smoke and use alcohol only in moderation will also be at less risk of paying lower monthly premiums.

High-risk individuals, including those with pre-existing conditions or a family history of illness, heavy drinkers or smokers, will face higher premiums.

  • Sex

Women typically live longer than men, meaning that their premiums will likely be lower due to reduced risk.

  • Your lifestyle and hobbies

Adventurous activities that increase your risk of death (like skydiving) will also mean that one’s premium will be higher.


Premiums depend heavily on one’s circumstances, but getting a rough idea of how much life insurance costs is useful.

For example, online quotes from Hippo showed that the cost of R3 million life cover for an under-25-year-old non-smoker male with a postgraduate qualification ranged between R319 and R610.

These are basic-level quotes, and further information will likely result in different prices:

InsurerCost per month
Different LifeR319
Stangen LifeR344
Capital LegacyR498
1Life Age-RatedR558
Budget Life InsuranceR558
1st for WomenR603
Auto & GeneralR608

How to bring costs down

Nedbank said that there are still several ways to bring your premiums down:

  • Stop smoking and drinking, or drink only occasionally and moderately

“Not only will this make you a lower risk, but it will also save you quite a bit of money, which helps offset your premiums,” said Nedbank.

  • Stay healthy

Healthy habits and regular exercise can improve overall health and reduce premiums.

Cutting out bad habits will also help.

  • Early bird gets the worm

Premiums are likely to be lower the younger someone gets life insurance.

  • Look around

“Don’t take the first policy you see. Shop around until you find the policy that suits your specific needs and circumstances.”

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