Business Maverick

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Analysis: Waiting for a job in South Africa? Don’t hold your breath.

Analysis: Waiting for a job in South Africa? Don’t hold your breath.

In his state of the nation address this year President Jacob Zuma promised jobs. He has done that several times since then too. There has been broad support, through the branches, the regions, the provinces and even the national executive committee. Even business was happy to play its part. How then has the ANC, its alliance, and everyone else cocked it up so spectacularly? And are there any good options left? STEPHEN GROOTES delivers bad news.

On Monday, the Adcorp Employment Index for June was published. Its headline is the jaw-dropping bombshell: “Employment dropped sharply at an annual rate of 8.3% during June, the second consecutive decline. This represents a loss of 127,100 permanent positions, and 5,712 temporary positions”. The numbers sound dry, but within them are nearly a 130,000 families (of a national average size of eight individuals) who are looking at a winter of cold and gruel, if they can even scrape that together.

The official figures from Statistics South Africa are no better. They point to 24% unemployment in the last quarter of last year, and a figure of 25% in the first quarter of this year (the first quarter of a year usually sees part-time Christmas jobs come to an end).

This at a time when government’s own New Growth Path is aiming at creating 5 million jobs over the next 10 years. So what has gone wrong?

The simple answer is that there is no greater sign of the political impotence of Zuma and parts of the ANC than this one issue – job creation. If Zuma and Gwede Mantashe who is with him are pushing this so hard, the fact that they are failing so badly must make one wonder if they just don’t have the power to make it happen. Granted, governing is hard, creating jobs at the moment is difficult, just ask Barack Obama. But in his case, as in Europe, there are structural reasons, there has been a long period of boom, and this is the inevitable bust.

What we have is something different. We have a failure to prioritise, to make hard choices, to make decisions and to make things happen. The ANC is currently in a political lock, a holding pattern if you like. Everyone is jockeying for position internally, and yet no one is actually strong enough to make something, anything, happen.

Look at Mantashe, and the verbal contortions he had to pull over the “jobs” or “decent work” debate. First it was, “There is nothing more undignified than being unemployed”, then, a few days later “I want jobs,  I want decent work, I want sustainable livelihoods”. Or, if you prefer, “Hell, I’d better not piss off Cosatu”. 

Cosatu is still annoyed though. It’s refused to stop criticising the plan for a youth employment subsidy, on the grounds that such a thing would lead to worse conditions of employment for the young people as well as danger to the jobs currently held by their own elder members. (Not that they’ve ever asked the unemployed youth that, of course. In my experience, every trip into Tembisa or Kya Sands includes a plea from a young person for a job, any job.)

But this doesn’t mean Cosatu is the only villain in this. It’s far more complicated than that. For a start, the ANC itself is hugely divided on what the future should look like. Big employers like Cyril Ramaphosa and Tokyo Sexwale must have views about getting people into jobs, about getting the country working. That must be an interesting discussion with ordinary branch members who just scrape together enough to live. So you have some of the richest people in the country, those who’ve done very well from Mammon, and those who have been consigned, by history perhaps, to be merely hewers of wood. And, of course, the ANC Youth League has completely overshadowed the jobs debate by pushing their signature issue of nationalisation into the limelight, only to serve Julius Malema’s personal political ambitions.

In short, as we’ve said many times before, there is simply too much breadth to the ANC. And when so many factions each pull in their own different direction, the result is no direction at all. And to make it worse, to stay on top, as Thabo Mbeki failed to learn, you only “lead” by making sure no one annoys fewer people than you. So no leader has any interest in rocking the boat, leftwards or rightwards, even as South African jobs disappear in their thousands.

In the organisation as positioned as the ANC today, with the only glue holding it together being the glue of power, it is always more advantageous to be “strong” within the ANC than ever to deliver on your job or election promises. (Just ask Amos Masondo and Gwen Ramakgopa, Joburg and Tshwane’s respective disastrous executive mayors.)

The result is simple deadlock. And if the ANC disagrees, ask them how the discussion of the New Growth Path is going. Economic development minister Ebrahim Patel was lucky not to have Cosatu chuck out the whole thing last month.

And this is where we now lie. Politically at least.

As the private sector is loathe to take on any new workers with all the red tape, the potential for strike that “decent work” entails, the only option open to Zuma and Mantashe is to use government to create jobs. Hence all the jobs funds we see being created from time to time. Essentially, the only way jobs can be created is for government to start building things, to find any excuse to employ people.

So will this lock be broken? Not likely.

First off, talk about an “Economic Codesa” is not likely to do it. Business itself is hardly unified , never mind the ANC. And no matter what such a talk-shop might decide, in the end the ANC, or whichever particular faction happens to be in “control” that week, could simply overrule it. The party has that power, even if individuals within it often seem utterly powerless. And the party, as we know, tends to use the power it has.

Or, possibly, a more powerful, more active, more effective ANC leadership could emerge, somehow.  We don’t see how at this point, because the problem really does look to be structural in nature. But perhaps, something could happen. We all know how quickly our politics can move, when it wants to. Some fault line could emerge, and a crack could appear in the holding pattern. But we’re not holding our breath.

What could possibly work is some kind of massive campaign to show what could happen if business was just left to do its thing. If the magic of real, healthy, entrepreneurial capitalism were to be let out of the bottle. But business doesn’t have the political legitimacy to make such a message stick. If you’re poor and have never worked, and the ANC has always blamed apartheid for this, you cannot be expected to listen to business with a completely open mind.

So if the chance of changing conditions on the ground is out, what is one to do? Fret? Find a way to back those ANC leaders you think may back your cause? Hmm, risky, plenty have tried and come away poorer. No, dear reader, we can’t think of anything the ordinary person can do. If you are a good boy scout, you should take the plunge and employ  someone in “decent work” and hope they don’t join Numsa.

Otherwise the only other option is to just sit and wait. Like millions of our people do, while hoping, somehow, for a job. Any job. But it all does look hopeless. DM

Grootes is an EWN reporter.

Photos: Reuters.


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