South Africa

Jobs: The pie in the sky of SA elections

By Ranjeni Munusamy 9 May 2013

The number of unemployed people increased by 100,000 to 4.6 million in the first quarter of this year, StatsSA announced this week. “This is preposterous!” screamed Cosatu. “A tragedy” and “simply unacceptable”, the Democratic Alliance said. Neither the ANC nor government bothered to react or even put a positive spin on figures in the survey which do indicate some employment growth. Eleven months before an election, these figures should be deadly to the governing party; luckily for the ANC, elections in South Africa are not yet fought on real issues. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

The one thing the ANC has been quite forthright about throughout its term in government is that it has been unable to drive the economy to create sustainable jobs on the scale the country requires. Since its 2007 national conference in Polokwane, the creation of “decent work” has been the primary focus of its economic policy. But it has been frustrated by the inability to create enough jobs to absorb the unemployed.

As Daily Maverick reported this week, StatsSA’s latest Labour Force Survey (LFS) shows that the official unemployment rate rose from 24.9% in the final quarter of 2012 to 25.2% in the first quarter of 2013. Among the most shocking results of the LFS is that during the same period, the number of discouraged work seekers increased by 73,000 to 2.3 million. And while growth in the economy is expected to increase marginally, this is unlikely to translate into significantly more jobs.

Statistics can be massaged in many ways to project the desired narrative. Predictably, the Democratic Alliance (DA) went in for the kill.

“When discouraged work-seekers are taken into account the ‘broad’ unemployment rate has increased to a staggering 38%. This means that there are 1.2 million more South Africans unemployed today than there were on the day Jacob Zuma became president,” DA finance spokesman Tim Harris said.

“The situation is simply unacceptable and a clear indication that the ANC is failing the poor and unemployed. President Zuma pays lip service to reducing unemployment in South Africa, but fails to follow through with his commitments,” Harris said, adding that the president needs to stand up to Cosatu to ensure that policies such as the youth wage subsidy are implemented without delay.

Cosatu, on the other hand, says the figures vindicate its position on minimum wages.

“The agricultural sector also grew by 54,000 jobs – despite the increase in sectoral determinations which so many analysts were arguing was going to lead to a rapid decline in jobs.

“Surely this will change the common perception about minimum wages. The increase in jobs in the agricultural sector has shown that where there is an increase in wages or when minimum wages are set at a reasonable level, they have no significant employment effect one way or the other,” the trade union federation said.

However, the increase in unemployment and number of discouraged work seekers was “a massive waste of human resources, which could be mobilised for development,” Cosatu said. “It is absolutely demoralising to see that if this trend persists we shall not only fail to meet the government’s target of creating five million new jobs between 2010 and 2020, but end up with a net loss of jobs over those 10 years.”

If Cosatu is going to rally behind its ally the ANC in next year’s election, as general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said it would in a television interview over the weekend, then it needs to adapt its reactions on South Africa’s economic performance and scrap words like “fail” from its vocabulary. On the campaign trail, leaders of the ANC and its alliance partners will need to talk up government performance over the past five years and skip over negative results such as those contained in the LFS.

But political analyst Vukani Mde says the LFS figures are not as dramatic as they appear and are not immediately politically relevant. “South Africa’s unemployed labour force is 4.5 million people. Adding or subtracting a hundred thousand to that figure over a period of three months, in our circumstances, won’t make a difference either to our economic prospects nor the ruling party’s electoral prospects,” Mde says.

“It’s also important to remember that before this latest survey, unemployment was slowly inching down, not up. This reversal comes on the back of widespread disruptions in mining, the country’s most important sector. The job losses are therefore counter-trend, and probably reversible,” he said.

In any case, indicators in the polls up to now show that the South African electorate is not grown-up enough to hold parties to account on the basis of their performance or election promises. While in the United States, for example, political parties and presidents are judged by how closely they stick to what they promised on the campaign trail, including delivery times, election manifestos in South Africa are tossed aside immediately after the elections with nobody really remembering what was in them.

Ebrahim Fakir of the Electoral Institute for the Sustainability of Democracy in Africa (Eisa) says big issues such unemployment have not yet swayed voting patterns in the country. People are not yet voting on policy issues and there is no indication that this trend is about to change in next year’s election, Fakir said.

While historical loyalties, race, ethnicity and regionalism are evident in voting patterns, political party policies, including bread-and-butter issues, have yet to make an imprint on the electorate. In an Eisa paper titled “Changing Voting Patterns”, Fakir and Waseem Holland note that there are “small and incremental changes taking place in the political attitudes of South Africans to political parties at local level”.

“Historical antecedents, with respect to racialised identities and social polarisation, may find continuities with social identities shaped by Apartheid if current voting patterns persist, a response to which may be increased patronage and pork-barrel politics as well as the emergence of a more strident populism from the governing party.

“Though there is the emergence of a floating vote, a consequence of emergent cosmopolitan political attitudes indicating the move towards a small number of more rational choice/instrumental voters, who may support a party other than the ANC, this is restricted to the black managerial and occupational class. Those dependent on entrepreneurial skill and business through procurement are more conservative and are likely to remain ANC supporters,” Fakir and Holland wrote.

While disenchantment is evident in the explosion of protest action and strikes, this does not necessarily translate into negative voting or a shift in loyalty away from the ANC.

“A likely loyal ANC voter, who takes to the streets but also stays away at local elections when dissatisfied, seems to be a prevalent prototype,” Fakir and Holland said.

Perhaps the latest LFS is nothing to be alarmed about and the unemployment figures could recover in the next few months. Or perhaps the figures are a worrying indicator of greater economic and social upheaval on the approach, and greater pressure on the fiscus.

While there might be a preoccupation with scandal and corruption, and these in all probability will feature in the election narrative, the number one issue in South Africa should be economic rescue through job creation. In its 2009 election manifesto, the ANC said: “the creation and retention of decent work and sustainable livelihoods will be the primary focus of all economic policies of the ANC government”.

For as long as South Africans remain lenient on accountability and there remains a chasm between party loyalty and the issues, political parties will continue to exploit popular sentiment and make empty promises.

Citizens without votes used to be the shame of South Africa. Now, voters without jobs are the tragedy of our country. DM

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