Ramaphosa government’s deafening silence on unemployment crisis
There can be no doubt that our massive unemployment, and particularly the fact that more than 70% of our young people are unemployed, is South Africa’s key long-term challenge and threat. However, there are few signs that the government is breaking much sweat in trying to solve this existential problem.
While South Africa faces a multitude of problems, it is important to identify the most important issues and then assess how successful the government and other roleplayers in our society are in resolving them.
The apparent lack of resolve to solve the country’s unemployment crisis is going to have huge consequences for our society – after the pandemic, it must surely be the most important threat we’re facing. As others have said, such is the scale and importance of our unemployment, that if we do not solve this problem it doesn’t matter if any other problems are solved.
Last week, Statistics South Africa published data revealing that our official unemployment numbers are at their highest ever – officially, 34.9% of our adults cannot find work.
But that belies the real number, which is of course much higher. While statisticians can discuss the “unemployed”, the “expanded definition of unemployment” and “discouraged jobseekers”, in reality it appears that we have at least 12 million people who are not able to find work. And it’s probably higher even than that.
These are people who may be destined to live lives far below their potential, lives of low incomes (if at all), relying on social grants, with all of the consequences which follow. It is a criminal and immoral situation in which a large part of our people languish.
From what can be ascertained, the response of the government to these figures has been mostly silence.
The Government Communication and Information System website does not contain a single statement about last week’s figures, despite finding space to mention a webinar about “Strengthening the regulation of media for gender diversity”.
The Presidency does not appear to mention it either. But there are several statements about President Cyril Ramaphosa’s visit to west Africa.
There is nothing either on the Treasury website.
The Ministry of Employment and Labour does not mention it either and there appears to be no official statement from that department on its website.
The Minister of Employment and Labour, Thulas Nxesi, last week made a submission to the International Labour Organization convention dealing with violence and harassment in the workplace, but no mention of the data from Statistics South Africa.
There is plenty of precedent for this silence from the government and from the ANC. While admitting that this is the biggest long-term problem we face as a society, there is little comment made in public on the matter.
In the past, Nxesi has indicated that he is aware of how serious this is. In an interview with Newzroom Afrika two months ago he said that, “The most fundamental issue facing us is this issue of unemployment… the main issue that it is a structural one linked to the issue of skills.”
He also explained that, “We are the ministry which is not creating jobs, but which is responsible for creating policy in order to be able to create jobs… Jobs are going to be created by the private sector in the main…”
Nxesi went on to say that if the government’s programmes to increase localisation and sort out “the energy space are vigorously implemented…” then we will create jobs.
But despite his admission that this is “the most fundamental issue facing us”, there appears to have been no comment made by him last week.
There is precedent for this. In the past, despite anxious interviews about unemployment on TV and radio stations from unionists, economists and concerned role-players, the government and the ANC have been almost silent, despite the fact they have views on many other issues in our society.
Contrast this silence with the commentary from people on different sides of the economic spectrum. SA Federation of Trade Unions General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi regularly warns of how this situation is unsustainable; the Centre for Development and Enterprises’ Ann Bernstein labelled last week’s number as “catastrophic”.
This may well be a reflection of what appears to be the government’s impotence on this issue, where both the government and the ANC simply have no answers.
It is well known that the ANC appears unable to craft economic policy, and to create a policy which can lead to job creation.
Unfortunately, there is also important evidence that many of the dynamics which lead to this unemployment are the result of the ANC’s actions.
It was the ANC’s divisions and fights over digital terrestrial television that led to us being the last country in Africa to convert to digital TV. The consequence of this is that we still do not have affordable broadband internet access outside urban areas – the spectrum used by analogue television will now be used by cellphone companies to provide data services, and the delays have led to this spectrum being unavailable for this purpose.
The mining sector has been involved in disputes over mining charters for around a decade, arguments around “localisation” have ended up stuck in the mud and, generally speaking, it is hard to find any signs of progress.
There is also little evidence that Ramaphosa is determined to make much difference.
Much of the rhetoric about growing the economy includes claims that small businesses will provide employment. However, the person recently appointed as small business development minister has shown no track record of accomplishment.
Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams has said little about jobs in the recent past. She was moved to the position after being the minister of communications. There, she used her hand to block an SABC camera from recording images of an ANC conference, enjoyed lunch in defiance of lockdown regulations and presided over more delays in the allocation of spectrum.
How then did Ramaphosa decide that she is the correct person for this position?
There is now evidence that more jobs are likely to be lost
While the government has said several times that it will focus on building new infrastructure in an effort to create jobs and to help grow the economy, it appears unable to protect the infrastructure that we already have.
During the violence in KZN and Gauteng in July, shopping malls and other infrastructure were badly damaged. Malerato Mosiane, the chief director responsible for labour statistics at Statistics South Africa, has suggested on SAfm that there is a link between this violence and a loss in jobs. She says that Gauteng lost 200,000 jobs during this period, while KZN lost 135,000.
This last Friday there was another blockade on the N3 highway linking Gauteng to KZN. While law enforcement said they were on the scene early in the morning, the road was still blocked for at least another 12 hours.
The implications of blocking a major economic artery in this way are staggering. But so is the fact that a small group can consistently have a negative economic impact of this magnitude. The danger, of course, is that this can lead to a downward spiral.
Meanwhile, there are other indications that the government is not paying enough attention.
On Friday, a group of organisations representing businesses relying on traffic at the Lebombo border post with Mozambique, spoke about how problems at that border post affect their businesses. They called for the border post to be opened on a 24-hour basis, and explained how that would enable them to create jobs.
This was not the first time this call had been made. The same groups made the same call in September, three months ago, explaining how problems on the Mozambican side led to problems for them. As yet, it appears there is no public action by our government on this.
All of this points almost to disinterest on the part of those in government about unemployment. Perhaps it’s an acceptance that all involved have no idea of what to do. In which case, perhaps a moral argument could be made for them to leave the stage and allow those who do have ideas to try.
But for the moment, there appears to be no evidence of any concerted effort to create jobs or create an enabling environment for jobs.
Just crickets. DM
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