South Africa


SA’s 2024 elections campaign — noise, noise everywhere, but not a good jobs debate to spare

SA’s 2024 elections campaign — noise, noise everywhere, but not a good jobs debate to spare
Illustrative image: Hand-painted signs by workseekers: (Photo: Gallo Images / Luba Lesolle) | People in a queue: (Photo: Gallo Images / Fani Mahuntsi) | Workmen on a bakkie: (Photo: EPA / Nic Bothma) | (Minister of Employment and Labour Thulas Nxesi. (Photo: Gallo Images / Fani Mahuntsi) | Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi. (Photo: Gallo Images / Fani Mahuntsi)

While unemployment, and particularly youth unemployment, is the biggest long-term problem South Africa faces, there are dramatic differences in what political parties say they’ll do to solve it. In the runup to next month’s general election, many have simply ignored the problem or made wild promises with no detailed plans, while others suffer from a curious lack of public displays of ambition.

When Thulas Nxesi was reappointed to the Cabinet in 2019, he was given the title of minister of employment and labour. In the past, the people who had held that position, all the way back to Tito Mboweni in the 1990s, had carried the title of minister of labour.

The addition of the word “employment” was supposed to be a signal from the government, and in particular from the then newish President Cyril Ramaphosa, that his administration would prioritise job creation.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Elections 2024

Unfortunately, for much of his term in office, Nxesi has been absent from the jobs debate. As previously pointed out, it had become routine for just about all roleplayers to talk about unemployment numbers, except for him.

That’s despite his statement that unemployment is “the most fundamental issue facing us”.

By some cosmic coincidence, in the weeks before the elections, this has now changed. In the past month, his department suddenly announced the Unemployment Insurance Fund Labour Activation Programme.

As Nxesi explains it, this will see money from the Unemployment Insurance Fund and from his departmentmental budget used to provide “job opportunities”, which will allow people to learn on the job, and then, hopefully, move to another job.

The government plans to spend R23-billion on this project — after five years of doing almost nothing, now, just before the elections, the government has found R23-billion to affix to its election promises.

This is not the only initiative from the ANC.

In Gauteng, Premier Panyaza Lesufi has launched the Nasi iSpani jobs project, which he says will create thousands of job opportunities.

This has come under fire, with questions about the timing and the sustainability of these job opportunities.

At the centre of these schemes is the phrase “job opportunities”. These are not sustainable jobs — rather, they are a kind of funded internship.

While such an internship will help make a young person employable (and often help them overcome the fact they were betrayed by the education system), these “opportunities” are not sustainable jobs.

No real change

This shows the ANC is acutely aware of how important jobs are to voters. But this is no real change from its manifesto 15 years ago. It was in 2009 that the ANC first said during an election campaign that jobs were its No 1 priority.

Unemployment has since only risen.

Director of the Centre for Development and Enterprise Ann Bernstein has said, “The best available evidence suggests it takes about 2.8 ‘work opportunities’ to create the equivalent of one year of full-time employment.”  

At the same time, she has been very critical of the ANC’s promise in its manifesto, saying it is simply unambitious.

She says the ANC is offering around 300,000 jobs over five years, when every year 400,000 young people finish matric and enter the economy (never mind the other 300,000 people who leave school every year before reaching matric). 

To be fair to the ANC, its full manifesto promises to create 2.5 million state-funded work opportunities to deliver public services and to “target” one million work opportunities for township and village small enterprises, entrepreneurs and co-ops.

This is still a reliance on the state, rather than any involvement of the private sector.

It is difficult to understand this curious lack of ambition, but its roots probably lie in the fact the ANC has been unable to make any dent in the unemployment figure. 

This is arguably the single biggest criticism one can make of Ramaphosa’s administration.

In 2019, just before Ramaphosa added “employment” to “labour” in Nxesi’s portfolio, he told the thousands gathered for his inauguration at Loftus Versfeld Stadium: “Let us forge a compact for growth and economic opportunity, for productive lands and viable communities, for knowledge, for innovation, and for services that are affordable, accessible and sustainable.” 

A full presidential term later, there is still no such compact.

And, as Statistics SA has consistently reported, unemployment is as high as it has ever been.

Promises, promises…

However, the ANC is not alone in making promises it cannot keep. 

Last week, Rise Mzansi’s Gauteng premier candidate, Vuyiswa Ramokgopa, said her party would create 600,000 jobs in Gauteng if she were elected to the position.

In KwaZulu-Natal, ActionSA’s premier candidate there, Zwakele Mncwango, promised that if elected, he would create one million jobs in that province.

All of this, of course, is sheer fantasy. With no published details of such plans, it is impossible to believe they can happen.

Importantly, for the DA the job-creation situation is slightly different.

New figures indicate that more jobs are being created in the Western Cape than in other provinces.

The DA will surely claim this is because it provides better services, and thus a more enabling environment for businesses.

This gets to the root of some of the problems, that creating jobs is all about an enabling environment — and the ANC has presided over a situation in which the business environment has deteriorated dramatically.

Of course, all political parties promise to improve service delivery, and thus create a more enabling environment for the economy. So far, the DA has a strong argument in the form of its record in the Western Cape.

But, for the rest of the country, there are at least two awful reasons the debates about unemployment during this election period have taken such a strange shape.

First, the crisis is so bad and so embedded, that most voters do not believe politicians when they make any promises on the subject.  

Second, it appears there is a significant overlap between unemployed people and people who don’t vote, as many unemployed people feel they have no stake in formal society, and thus do not vote.

As the numbers tell us, if all those who are unemployed voted for one single party, that party would probably have a two-thirds majority in Parliament.

Amid all of the shouting and screaming that marks our politics, it is unlikely that we will have a sober debate about creating jobs. Instead, politicians will focus more on easier issues of identity and class. And corruption.

There is very little voters can do about unemployment, at least in the short term.

This means that despite the fact some people believe this election will change our country, it is unlikely to result in the creation of more jobs — despite the crying need for them. DM


Daily Maverick has closed comments on all elections articles for the next two weeks. While we do everything in our power to ensure deliberately false, misleading and hateful commentary does not get published on our site, it’s simply not possible for our small team to have sight of every comment. Given the political dynamics of the moment, we cannot risk malignant actors abusing our platform to manipulate and mislead others. We remain committed to providing you with a platform for dynamic conversation and exchange and trust that you understand our need for circumspection at this sensitive time for our country.

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