South Africa


It’s the Unemployment, Stupid

It’s the Unemployment, Stupid
Illustration: Leila Dougan

South Africa has a depressingly high rate of unemployment, and yet it has hardly featured as an issue in the 2019 election campaigns. This while more than half the country’s young people are unemployed, and probably unemployable, with the only option open to them anti-social behaviours like crime and drug abuse.

Fact: South Africa has a major unemployment problem. Wherever you go you find people desperate to work, desperate to get the income and dignity only work can bring. And yet, despite the 2019 elections being less than two weeks away, it does not seem that this issue is really dominating. At the same time, there is now some evidence that most voters don’t believe any particular party can resolve this crisis. That alone has important implications for our society.

While the numbers can differ depending on which study you look at it, it is generally accepted that South Africa has a youth unemployment rate of above 50%. This means that half of the young people are not studying or working. Worse, there is evidence that many of these young people now believe that there’s no hope they will ever get a job. Their existence is eked out on a day-to-day basis. The temptation to indulge in anti-social behaviour and substance abuse must be incredibly strong.

The three major political parties and most of the others recognise this. Their manifestos contain pledges and promises to deal with the problem. The ANC has made jobs one of its central campaign features, as it did in 2009. The DA does the same, while the EFF has moved from focusing almost solely on land to the slogan “Land and Jobs Now”. Like many other democracies, this is one of the most important issues for the parties.

But research appears to show that in fact none of the parties is seen as being able to solve the problem.

Citizens Surveys recently conducted research on the issue. As their Director of Research and Strategy Reza Omar put it on SAfm on Wednesday morning, “we asked which political parties are best at solving these issues, and we go through the problems facing SA… No political party, none, is associated with solving unemployment. So none of the political parties can speak credibly about solving unemployment in South Africa”.

He goes on to point out that “Unemployment overall is cited as the most important problem by 73% of adults in South Africa. So when the political parties do not have credibility in creating jobs, none, well that is a problem in and of itself.”

Obviously, the issue of jobs is tied very closely to the question of poverty reduction – resolving one would presumably lead to the partial resolution of the other. It might be then that most South Africans do not believe any political party is actually capable of solving the poverty problem.

This is an incredibly depressing thought.

There are several dynamics which this line of research might explain.

The first is that this election does not appear to be dominated by any one issue, or group of issues. There does not appear to be a set of topics that are really being debated. Some of this is due to the still-divided nature of our society. But it might also be simply because people do not believe that this election will solve any problems, it won’t actually change their lives. This might be why, in a strange way, this election is so dull on the issues front.

This would also explain why the attention-grabbers, the extremes of our politics, are able to make so much headway because there is a space for them to occupy.

However, the main observation from this research is that voters appear to be giving up hope that any of their options are able to actually solve the problem that most affects them. This may mean that for some, there is no hope of the current political system actually resolving their problems.

The implications of this could be profound.

For some, anger will grow, and thus a desire/appetite for more radical action. In other words, this could be fertile ground for populists, and those who promise the world to those who have nothing. It could also mean that anger against the rich, the “haves” will grow. In some cases, this might lead to a general weakening of the social fabric. If the “haves” are able to retain their wealth, and the “have-nots” are unable to attain any wealth, it would be rational to conclude that there is a problem with the system. And if the system cannot be changed through voting, then what options are left?

Certainly nothing peaceful, nothing within the system.

This is also an indictment on the political parties themselves. In such an environment, it should be relatively easy to chart a plan for people to believe that their biggest problems will be solved. And yet none of them have been able to do this. While they talk about job creation in their manifestos and speeches, there is far more attention being paid to other issues, around corruption, or former leaders, or Eskom. It is surely an indication of the failure of these campaigns that they have not been able to make jobs the real dominant issue of this campaign?

That said, it must be conceded that solving the economic problems we have might well seem almost impossible. Politicians will know that making impossible promises can backfire, and create a situation in which they are not taken seriously. As a result, they shy away from making such promises.

All of this might lead some to despair, to suggest that if no political party is seen as able to resolve the problem of unemployment, in fact, there is simply no way to do it.

But other countries have been here before.

Anyone who has seen pictures of the dustbowls and haunted eyes of the Great Depression will know that their situation seemed hopeless too. And yet it was, eventually, overcome. Other countries, some quite similar to us, have the same problems of unemployment: India has millions of young men who do nothing but act as security guards all day. It too has huge issues around education and inequality. And for the moment, its economy is growing more quickly than China’s.

This suggests that the right policies could have a big impact.

On the other side of this argument is the fear that changes in technology are leading to a situation in which there will only be jobs for the very well-educated. This is often seen as one of the dangers of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, that the rich will get richer and the poor will find it harder and harder to get any work at all.

In many ways, this is the real problem that South Africa faces: the education system has failed most South Africans.

This too can actually be overcome.

While there should be a focus on improving education at schools, there is nothing stopping the government from using technology, and cheaper data, to provide a massive adult education system. It is the kind of programme that international donors could easily support, involving cellphones, free access to educational websites, and a proper system of qualifications. Many millions of people have cheap smartphones. Right now, these are not being used to provide any formal system of adult education. All that is required is proper organisation.

There is plenty of evidence that many voters are feeling dissatisfied with their options in this election. It is up to the political parties themselves to convince them that this election can make a real difference to their lives.

So far, it seems, they have all failed that test. DM


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