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And so, Mr President, when did you decide that we have a jobs crisis?


Steven Boykey Sidley is a Professor at JBS, University of Johannesburg, and the co-author of Beyond Bitcoin: Decentralised Finance and the End of Banks (with Simon Dingle).

Recently a shocking admission was made by our sitting President. He said South Africa should expect ‘many’ job losses. He amped this up in a later speech – ‘a flood of job losses’, he said. This after decades of his party saying the opposite. You’ve got to be kidding, right?

If you take a look back at promises made by the ANC (usually around an election) you will find very specific numbers. Remember the startling “five million jobs by 2020”, made by Jacob Zuma in December of 2015? Or the most recent promise of 275,000 jobs a year made by the ANC in January of 2019?

And now suddenly proclamations brimming with biblical language like “we need to stem the flood” tell us that the ANC has changed its mind about employment. Forget what we said before, they are telling us. We lied, or we hadn’t understood, or we were ignorant, or we were cynical. Whatever. We were wrong.

Of course, singling out the ANC is a little disingenuous. From the Democratic Alliance (DA) to the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), employment promises are thrown around like pixie dust. But here’s the thing – there are no more jobs. They aren’t coming back. There are no silver linings. Jobs require job-creators, of whom there are few left (the government is hopelessly indebted, business is shrinking and gasping). We also require people who can do the few jobs that are created. There aren’t a lot of those either; we spill woefully under-qualified graduates on to the streets every year where they find the tragic truth of seeking jobs that can’t use what they have on offer.

Let’s take a look at the President’s statement. He pointed to the causes of the “many” job losses we can expect. Technology, globalisation, climate change and a slow economy, he said. He did not mention incompetence, mismanagement and corruption by the ruling party, but let’s give him some space here. He had seen the Nedlac employment report. He couldn’t just say nothing.

All of these are indeed contributing factors, although climate change-caused unemployment is perhaps a little premature, portentous weather spikes notwithstanding.

Globalisation? Definitely. It simply means facing up to the reality that goods can be made cheaper and better elsewhere these days (think shoes, clothing, textiles – a business lost from our shores in 20 years). He stated it as though it was something imposed on us. No, it wasn’t. We became uncompetitive in multiple industries in the past 20 years because no one was in the guardhouse. Our fault, we lost. Not some globalisation boogeyman.

A slow economy? Well, of course. We are not making stuff and people are not buying stuff, even if they had the savings. Businesses have applied brakes to expansion. Whether this be the fault of inflexible labour laws (it is), educational incompetence and lack of skills (of course) or tight access to capital (for sure) or corruption (obviously) or political uncertainty (indeed), it an unhelpful statement. It is like saying, “I am hungry because I don’t have food”. Again, the economy is slow not because it was imposed on is, it is largely because of policy mistakes made by the ruling party over the past 20 years.

And then technology, which our President mentioned first in his list. For all the talk of highways in the sky and turning South Africa into an African Silicon Valley, there are a couple of details missing. In order to create the sort of innovation and excellence required to build a technology superstate, the pre-university education system would need to be scrapped entirely and rebuilt from foundational level up, without unions and their extortionate job protection hobbling the system and with a budget that pays dignified salaries. There is simply no political will (or even understanding) that this is a requirement. And even if there was, such a glorious world would be at least 25 years out.

And the other side of technology – artificial intelligence and its Fourth Industrial Revolution cohorts are all going to be herded into employment-shredding activities. Businesses hate labour, because labour comes with demands, and machines are more compliant. And so, in the dark of their nights, CEOs dream of an organisation with no human employees and lots of smart software and hardware. This is not science-fiction – every research report from every corner of the globe predicts staggering and socially mayhemic job destruction at the hands of advanced technology which has already started and will continue unabated.

And so, Mr President. When did you decide that we have a jobs crisis? Did someone hand you a dispassionate report in the past few months that caused you to suddenly understand where we are headed? Or did you know all along and choose to say nothing? And what do you intend to do? Not platitudes. Not strategies or aspirations. Tactics, budgets, spreadsheets, schedules, forecasts, timelines, critical paths, conditionalities.

Do you even have a plan? DM


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