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


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Wendy Dewberry says:

    It’s logical to understand that job creation lies in a system that begins with education. To my mind, ANY declarations of job creation that fails to start at pre- school education is hot wind. But this debate in our halls is not really about job creation. It is about who wins the attracting game at the polls. It’s just too sad

    • Alan Paterson says:

      Agree absolutely! As always the rot began from day 1 when Bengu closed the training colleges, paid off the able teachers and unionised the remainder, largely those essentially unqualified to teach for meaning. So many people, young and old, are begging at every traffic light and with no hope of meaningful job creation in their futures. The reality is that we face at least another thirty years starting from virtual scratch at pre-school to reach towards the education successes of, say, a South Korea or Singapore. In an ideal world, that is. Which our country isn’t. However I suppose it would be the kiss of death for any political party to face reality, be honest and say vote for us and your children will be just fine. But in thirty years time.

  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    “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.”
    Thats the crux of the matter, corruption (including for instance the kind that is created by the construction mafias which is enabled by our corrupt ANC politicians) destroys service delivery and business, and with it the jobs go.
    These aren’t separate conversations, they belong together.

  • Carol Green says:

    Thank you Stephen. It bothers me so much that the government can spend billions on “job opportunities” rather than spending those billions on an enabling environment for the private sector to create real, sustainable jobs. It reinforces that this government has no idea how to run a modern economy.

    • A Concerned Citizen says:

      The ANC are a nationalist-socialist organization. Their promises of job creation come within government, bloating the public wage bill and draining taxpayer money. They don’t understand or believe in the role of the private sector in job creation. Contrast that with the DA’s Economic Justice Policy and other job creation strategies that entail a much leaner government that partners with and enables a lively private sector.

    • D'Esprit Dan says:

      Spot on, Carol – the ANC simply cannot figure it out that the most successful countries in the world are those that provide a proper enabling environment for companies and entrepreneurs to build businesses and create jobs. They are also desperate for voters to believe that only government (ANC) can ‘create’ jobs, no matter how piffling these are – a bit like their obsession with social grants, when opening up the economy would stimulate job creation far faster and more efficiently than useless SOEs.

    • Geoff Coles says:

      Fair comment, there’s the ANC way, or no way.

  • Alan Watkins says:

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

    You understate the position and DA’s employment growth history. The correct way to state what has happened in the Western Cape is “New AND OLD figures indicate that more jobs are being AND HAVE BEEN created in the Western Cape than in ALL THE other provinces COMBINED.”

    • Karl Sittlinger says:

      Just to underline your comment:
      “03 Mar 2023 in News
      Of the 169 000 jobs created in South Africa in the fourth quarter of last year, 167 000 were created in DA-run Western Cape. The net total of jobs created during those three months in the eight ANC-run provinces was just 2000. That means the only DA-run province contributed 99% of the new jobs created while the eight ANC-run provinces together contributed just 1%.
      This data comes from StatsSA’s Quarterly Labour Force Survey that was released this week”
      Stephen, seriously, why is it so hard for you to give credit (properly) where it is due?

      • Karl Sittlinger says:

        I looked AfriCheck now on the 98% claim by the DA. It seems its a bit misleading. That being said, the WC is still miles ahead of any ANC led province when it comes to job creation when factoring in seasonal job fluctuations. Apologies for not checking the claim before.

      • Geoff Coles says:

        His employer is the SABC, ANC and DM…You cannot praise the DA controlled W Cape

  • ST ST says:

    Tintswalo’s better pay attention. This is your most important vote. Don’t be fooled or satisfied with regurgitated promises that you know full well have landed you here. Incase you don’t already know, it is not normal for politicians the world over to be so much more wealthier than the population they serve. Question things.

    Even if you yourself are better off, widen your perspective. Consider those left behind. I’m sure you know at least a handful of them. We don’t live in a bubble. No matter how much security (physical, financial etc) you are lucky enough to be able to wrap around you (for now), we don’t live in a bubble. The society we live in affects us. Consider the country you want for your children and their children.

    • ST ST says:

      Even if you think you’ll just get yourself to another country, wouldn’t be nice for that to be a choice rather than an escape? Wouldn’t it be nice not to have to constantly worry about you’ll have left behind? Please vote and vote as wisely as possible.

  • Johan Buys says:

    I don’t know where to begin.

    That internship thing will blow up like a similar one did. When the program participants reached en of their turn, they refused to leave the program along with mass protests. How do you employ somebody for a year or two and then say goodbye?

    We have structural problems that hold back investment and new jobs. The obvious ones are lack of confidence. In energy and transport and basic services but also in the government per se. We now sit with prime over 11% meaning the required return on investment for a project feasibility is likely 24% and there ain’t many of those opportunities around. Why is cost of capital so high? Our government is stuck in 1940 economics theory that tells them they can reduce inflation by increasing borrowing costs. That only work in circumstance of irrational exhuberance. Most of our price increase drivers are ecternal factors like oil and currency, plus administered prices like electricity. We have no economy to cool down.

    The state has failed our youth in education and has failed business by hamstring policies like employment equity, BEE procurement and then most obviously the corruption and incompetence of the cadres they stuffed into the public service. What money the arms of state do spend on infrastructure is mis-spent.

  • K P says:

    What does it even mean to spend that ridiculous amount of money on creating ‘job opportunities’? Imagine if that money were spent on enabling the private sector to do what it should: employ people. Honestly, as a medium-business employer in the great state of KZN, what I wouldn’t give for the kind of service the private sector gets from its government in the Western Cape. Don’t let familiarity get in the way of appreciating what you have down there… give the DA props where it is due.

  • Bob Dubery says:

    Bah! More DA bashing from the woke Grootes… oh… wait a minute.

  • Rae Earl says:

    Our business began importing goods from Taiwan in 1984. That little island was a humming producer of thousands of goods goods long before the advent of China’s conversion to a capitalist system under a communist ruling elite. One of Taiwan’s incentives to small business was to extend a 2-year tax free start-up to enable new entrepreneurs to gain the expertise required to establish and build-up their ventures. Those businesses flourished as they were able to generate sufficient capital to expand and be productive and profitable. The ANC government has done nothing like this. Instead a police-state mentality with multiple regulations and by-laws kills most SME’s from day one. If the ‘Taiwan Miracle” of creating jobs by allowing industry and economics to flourish without government restrictions and stupid by-laws, our unemployment situation would would have been nullified years ago. The DA approach bears testimony to this in the Western Cape.

  • Sam van Coller says:

    We are all clutching at straws. The reality is that RSA is locked in a stranglehold of its past – institutions that don’t work, paradigms that mislead. We learnt two lessons from the looting in KZN and Gauteng. Stakeholders will defend their assets, those with no stake can rip the country apart in 24 hours. Who owns (emotionally and asset-wise) South Africa? Very few . Economic growth comes from human energy. We need to change the debate, change the paradigms to create a very different road ahead. How do we spread ownership of brand South Africa? How do we make dramatic changes of direction that mobilise the human energy and capacity in the same direction? We need bold initiatives. All that growing the Western Cape achieves is to increase in-migration from the Eastern Cape and make Khayelitsha a bigger nightmare. We need a new spatial development plan that directs development away from the old cities which are crumbling under the pressures of costly urbanisation, steer the development to middle order towns, identify four cities of the future, set a goal of providing a serviced site in those towns such that every three-generation family in the country has secure title to a piece of land on which to build their own house. There are many ways in which we can spread ‘ownership’ in education, health care, business, public transport. Unless we change the debate, RSA will be destroyed by a dependence syndrome because it’s people have nothing else to motivate them

  • Geoff Coles says:

    Creating an enabling environment…how true…..

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options