South Africa


Who speaks for the unemployed?

Koos Mthimkhulu inspects his herd of cattle at his farm in Senekal, about 287km in the Eastern Free State, in this February 29, 2012 file photo. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

We have a voice for business and the unions speak for labour, but who represents the growing ranks of the jobless?

Who speaks for the unemployed? It is a vital question because the latest figures show that 27.2% of the people who can and want to work are unemployed. Add to this the disillusioned who no longer seek jobs and we have something like a third of the able-bodied population workless and voiceless.

The unemployed tend to be the least educated amongst us and the ones who most need help to put their case. In the age group between 15 and 24 the unemployment rate is 67% and 43% for those from 25 to 34. It is an alarming situation and our governing politicians have no idea of what to do about it. In fact, they have become adept at making the situation worse with excessive regulation and measures like the minimum wage.

To illustrate the point, I would like to quote the example of an enlightened Eastern Cape farmer who ran a profit-sharing scheme with his staff. The head of each household on the farm was allowed to run 10 head of cattle. They grazed with his cattle, they were dipped and inoculated with his cattle and they had the services the best bulls. There was milk for the children and plenty of traditional sour milk. At the end of the year the staff cattle were rounded up. By this time their numbers had increased and they would have to choose which 10 cattle they would keep for the next year. Selling off the excess cattle produced substantial bonuses and a time of celebration.

In the good years the cattle were fat and fertile and in the dry years nobody did very well, but it was all transparent and everybody understood the situation. If, say, a fence was broken and cattle spilled out on to the roadside or into another camp they would turn out to round up escaped cows and mend the fence. There was no question of overtime. They did what had to be done because the farm herd was also their herd. There was a common interest in the welfare of the cattle.

All this changed when legislation was introduced to compel farmers to pay a minimum cash wage and to limit working hours. It was a painful time. The enlightened farmer called in his staff and explained that he could not afford to pay the cash wages and continue to allow them to run their cattle with his herd.

The intention of the legislation was to improve the life of farm workers. It had exactly the opposite effect. From that moment the change to less labour-intensive farming began. Some staff decided that if they could not have their cattle they would rather not stay on the farm and moved into town and into RDP houses half the size of their farm houses. The farmer now buys his milk in plastic bags at the local supermarket.

I know the Eastern Cape well because I spent several years at university in Grahamstown and my preferred form of recreation is hiking. The area has changed considerably. If you drive from Port Elizabeth to Grahamstown you will notice the high fences alongside the road. They are game fences. You may even see an elephant or zebra. You will also see elaborate farm gates with supporting walls, flags and banners. These are the game lodges. You will see the turn-off to Paterson and the famous Shamwari Private Game Reserve.

Beyond Grahamstown the number of high fences, double fences and electric fences increases. On the road to Fort Beaufort there is a game farm with its own airstrip and a tarred runway long and strong enough to land one of the smaller Boeings. It does not employ many people. Wild animals look after themselves.

Nobody planned these changes, but they were inevitable. The result was that the sharing way of farming has come to an end and we now we have unemployment in the towns. Everyone is poorer. The same thing will happen with the minimum wage now extended to commerce and industry. It will encourage automation and new labour-saving ways to get things done. The ranks of the unemployed will thicken once more. It is all quite predictable — and it was predicted — but politicians prefer to talk, not listen.

The unions have not proved to be friends of the unemployed. Their focus is on growing or holding on to their fee-paying members. The unemployed have nothing to offer the unions except competition in the job market.

So who will speak for the unemployed? Minority political parties do and so does organised business, but they appear to have little effective influence. And at the end of the day they have their own responsibilities.

During Cape Town’s long summer of drought there were concerns about “social problems” if we ran out of water and people became desperate. But that was a small, localised problem. We are facing something much bigger.

What has happened to the jobs? The mining industry provides us with another example. The once mighty De Beers company now has only one diamond mine left in South Africa and that is highly automated Venetia mine in Limpopo. It makes better sense for De Beers to invest in the more business-friendly environments of Botswana and Canada. The gold industry has shrunk and we are now just the seventh-largest gold producer in the world. Even the US state of Nevada produces more gold than we do — it comes in at number four.

What has happened? Well, our mines are deep and labour-intensive and the model no longer works. Now the platinum mines are in trouble through no fault of the industry. They are caught between falling demand and lower platinum prices on the one hand and high electricity and labour costs on the other. Many mines are running at a loss — the mining companies need to close down more shafts and that means retrenching a few thousand workers. But the minister responsible for mining wants them to continue losing money. With attitudes like this at the highest level is it any wonder that there is a reluctance to invest?

Mines have a limited life so mining companies spend a great deal exploring for new mineral deposits, but try to get a prospecting licence in South Africa and you run into a wall of bureaucracy, policy uncertainty and a mining charter that keeps changing. If the government wanted to discourage mining it could not have done a better job over the past decade.

The unemployment figures show how manufacturing jobs are disappearing. One reason is that manufacturers are losing some of their best customers, such as the mines. Another is because electricity costs are now so high.

We see the same thing with the land redistribution question. New uncertainties have been created and farmers will not plant new orchards under the risk of expropriation without compensation. And that means there will be fewer jobs in the canning factories and exports will decline.

And so the story repeats itself: good intentions, unintended consequences that should have been foreseen — and unemployment. Will they ever learn? DM

Bagraim is DA MP and Shadow Minister of Labour.