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Panyaza Lesufi’s long, treacherous road to owning SA’s hottest political potato — unemployment

Panyaza Lesufi’s long, treacherous road to owning SA’s hottest political potato — unemployment
Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi. (Photo: Gallo Images / Fani Mahuntsi)

While short-term problems around load shedding, violence and corruption dominate our national discussions, there can be no doubt that SA’s most painful and dangerous long-term problem is unemployment, particularly youth unemployment. Now, in an effort to win votes and retain the ANC’s control of Gauteng, Premier Panyaza Lesufi is pushing to make jobs — provided by the government — a central plank of his campaign.

Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi’s push to make jobs provided by the government a central plank of his electoral campaign is likely to have major consequences and could backfire.

There can be no doubting the sheer depth of our youth unemployment crisis. Depending on which figure you look at, at least 62% of South Africa’s young people (aged 15-24) are not working and not studying.

Despite the pain, anger and sheer heartache this causes, it is striking how rarely politicians talk about it.

The minister of labour and employment, Thulas Nxesi, is almost silent on the issue despite the impassioned pleas of everyone else, including unions, which represent the employed.

Despite campaign promises and broad claims that there will be “structural reform”, the real reason unemployment is not discussed by every politician every single waking hour is they … do not actually have any solutions.

It is certainly an extremely difficult problem. The education system which has betrayed young people shows few signs of improvement; 82% of our Grade 4 learners cannot read for meaning.

This is not just about South Africa, but the entire region. Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho and Mozambique also suffer high unemployment across all age groups, making this a transfrontier problem.

There is a reason that so many people come to South Africa from other countries: they believe there is actually a better chance of a job here than at home.

Bucking the trend

Lesufi appears to be going against the trend of politicians remaining silent about unemployment.

He has held regular events at stadiums in Soweto, where people are given letters appointing them as solar panel technicians (as part of a bigger renewable energy roll-out programme), “crime wardens” and litter pickers. Presumably, other categories are on the way.

Lesufi says he is using budgeted funds from his provincial government to pay for these jobs. He insists that the provincial government has the money, as it has made savings in other areas.

But it is obvious that the scale of the problem will make it impossible for the government to fund this in the longer term. The people who pay the already high taxes are voting with their feet by going to other countries, and the remaining taxbase is dwarfed by the number of people who are not in formal employment.

While perhaps more than a million young people will apply for these jobs — so great is their desperation — the majority will not come away from these events employed.

Despite that, the aspiration of this, the promise that people may get a job may well encourage Lesufi to continue down this path.

He will also be able to claim in elections that he and his government are actually trying to do something, while other politicians avoid the issue.

This type of measure is strikingly close to the ancient Roman promise of “bread and circuses” to keep people happy. But, in the longer run, considering these jobs will surely be unsustainable, it keeps voters happy only temporarily and at a crushing cost to the fiscus.

It is also clear that Lesufi’s message, of a provincial government trying to employ young people, has created an important resonance wave.

The fact EFF leader Julius Malema has targeted this programme so regularly is proof of that.

Malema said at the EFF’s 10th birthday celebration: “When we take over this Gauteng next year, all those people who were hired by Panyaza, we’re going to expel all of them because they were not properly hired … They are hired because they are members of the ANC, they are hired because they are campaigners of the ANC.” 

Malema has provided no evidence to back this claim, and if there was proof that these young people are ANC members, it would have entered the public domain.

But Malema clearly believes this poses a threat to his own populist attempts to court young people’s votes. He may believe that if they are working for the province they will be unlikely to vote against the party in power.

For Lesufi, there are many risks to this.

He has made a point of addressing the young people looking for jobs during these events. By doing this he signals that this is his initiative. He may well be hoping that those who get jobs believe he is personally responsible, even though their salaries are paid by the provincial government from state funds. And he will be hoping to receive political credit in the form of votes.

This inherently politicises the process, allowing Malema to make his accusations.  

The majority of young people going to these events will leave empty-handed and this could lead to an ugly incident.

As far back as 2011, the advertising of unskilled jobs led to a stampede involving 10,000 people in Bloemfontein — and the desperation will be greater now.  

It is also possible that the young people who don’t receive jobs, and their families, will just see this as another betrayal by the government, and turn their backs on the ANC and Lesufi.

Inadequately trained ‘crime wardens’

Some of the jobs on offer are problematic.

One of Lesufi’s first big promises was the appointment of “crime wardens” in Gauteng. They are given a uniform and often a gun to fight crime after receiving only two months of training, which means they are likely to be exposed to dangerous situations without adequate training. Considering there was virtually no vetting, some may also end up being accused of abusing their power, including their handling of firearms.

Already the Gauteng Department of Community Safety has had to deny claims that the crew of the Moja Love television programme Sizok’thola  was guided to the home of a drug dealer by patrollers. The alleged dealer, Robert Varrie, died during this incident.

Similar troubling episodes are likely to occur in the future. These may well be blamed on Lesufi on the basis that he would have ultimate responsibility for the employment programme.

However, considering how important this issue is, and considering the relative silence of other politicians, Lesufi will be hoping to become the only visible political champion of the unemployed, to practically own the field that is so important to so many.

If he succeeds in this, he may be well rewarded with votes. It will be interesting to see if any other politicians follow his lead and try to beat him at a game in which he is currently the only player. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • D'Esprit Dan says:

    It is indeed a dangerous game, played with taxpayer money, much like our ‘new and improved’ power situation, which is in fact nothing more than burning through billions of Rands of diesel. It is symptomatic of a ruling party that is scared of the elections and is now tossing anything and everything at shoring up its support: both are little more than t-shirts and food parcels, dressed up as sustainable solutions, when neither actually is.

  • Hermann Funk says:

    As usual, our clueless politicians try solving systemic problems with steps that will have no affect on the actual cause. On top of it, under Lesufi’s watch as MEC for eduattion hundreds of millions of Rands were wasted on senseless fogging of schools during the pandemic. Looking at the city Johannesburg where his politic interference keeps an incompetent mayor in power which is at the detriment of both the city and its citizens, Lesufi is just another political charlatan.

  • Denise Smit says:

    It is not true that Lesufi is the only player. Alan Winde, Gordon Hill Lewis, through growing the economy in the Western Cape and Cape Town are adressing the unemployment crises. Please, give more balanced articles with a neutral stance Steven. Denise Smit

    • John Nicolson says:

      Denise Smit, you fail to see the distinction between using unproductive taxpayers’ money and growing a productive economy to generate jobs for the unemployed. Stephen does not need advice to become more “balanced” in this respect.

  • Grumpy Old Man says:

    Lesufi says he is using budgeted funds from his provincial government to pay for these jobs. He insists that the provincial government has the money, as it has made savings in other areas.
    The above statement needs to be interrogated because I think Panyaza is being ‘footloose & fancy free’ in his use of the word ‘savings’ when in fact a more correct term would be ‘cuts’
    Which Departments budgets have you cut Panyaza & what are the potential implications? We have seen this before from you – pet, short term projects to prop up your own personal popularity & hyper-inflated ego

  • Jacques Wessels says:

    Hot cat on a hot roof… The problem is that politicians themselves are not held accountable by anyone. GET INVOLVED ZA !!!

  • Brian Doyle says:

    Unfortunately it is spending tax payers money, and therefore robbing Peter to Pay Paul. By diverting funds the services will suffer as there will be less to spend on basic services, so while it looks as if the ANC is doing something about unemployment, they are just moving the chairs around on the deck of the Titanic

  • Johan Buys says:

    Government employment programs for other than normal vacancies : the first batch of people in the government youth employment program are at end of their contracts but now protesting that the contract period should not end and they must now be regarded as permanent workers. The next batch of people are forming long queues to enroll. Not long and party voters = government employees?

  • Patrick Devine says:

    Lesufi’s ONLY success is his own PR.

    All his other high profile projects are complete failures and no journalists ever question him on what happened to:

    – iPads for all learners (no iPads left)
    – eClassrooms (yeah right)
    – R330 million looted by ‘pretending’ to fumigate empty schools within 60 days

    Where has all money gone?

  • Kate Philip says:

    So, Stephen, I’ll admit to being baffled by the assumption of this article. The Presidential Employment Stimulus has been the largest and most rapid expansion of public employment in SA’s history, reaching over 1.2 million people since its launch in October 2020. Right now, 235,000 young people are in post in 23,000 schools: appointed through processes of application through Harambee’s SAYouth online platform precisely to ensure transparency and to avoid the kind of patronage effects you describe here. This is just one of the Employment Stimulus programmes, but it is the biggest youth employment programme in SA’s history. Others include the Social Employment Fund (67,000 people employed); a major stimulus to the creative sector known as PESP (over 60,000 people); Youth Service – 45,000 people…. and more. Right now on DMs platform is another article – from civil society – talking about how important the school assistant programme is and why it matters that it continues. The Stimulus has been featured in every SONA since then, in many weekly letters from the President… and on the DM platform. Has this all passed you by? Is it because these programmes have been well implemented that they get no coverage? If they are really so invisible to you: please advise us on how we can do better. You are welcome to visit any programme of your choosing. Do reach out, please.

  • Gareth Murray says:

    Instead of the crime wardens been in the line of fire we could have them guarding critical infrastructure such as sub stations, schools, hospitals & other public property that falls victim to rampant theft. We can also teach them to repair & maintain infrastructure & property, clean up & beautify the townships, CBDs & other areas that could do with a new lick of paint & some TLC.

  • William Stucke says:

    Lesufi isn’t the only champion of the unemployed. Look at Organising for Work and the PROGRESS Party. They need support from real people. They are making real progress and have real jobs and entrepreneur support as their primary platform for the 20124 elections.

    See “A job opportunity for every South African” on DM

  • Denise Smit says:

    Hope there is no unproductive taxpayers money in Gauteng if you consider the state of the Province infrastructure. Perhaps we should start cleaning up Yeoville , or the sewerage systems. It is a wish! Subjective is better than balanced , I agree.

  • Shaun Mbhiza says:

    Well last Friday another batch of jobs was handed out. This time in partnership with Uber and a hefty investment. Please update the article to reflect this. Why? Because it shows that his push has some private investment involved and private support. And these jobs I’d argue provide some value.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    More jobs created by government for people that can’t actually do the job but based on skin colour and paid for by the taxpayer is actually fraud. That is what BEE policies are – fraudulent and racist!
    And this initiative is merely another form of vote rigging!
    Wouldn’t expect anything less from the ANC and EFF – fraud, theft and racism forms the base of their mandates. Worse than under apartheid – at least the Nationalist government were able to keep the economy healthy …and that was under extreme sanctions from the rest of the world – who now stand by and shake their heads watching what they have created with those sanctions!

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