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In the face of SA's unemployment crisis, we must put un...

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In the face of SA’s unemployment crisis, we must put unused skills to work and develop a solidarity economy


Siyabulela Mama works at the Centre for Post-School Education and Training, Nelson Mandela University. He is an activist at the Assembly of the Unemployed and part of the Amandla Collective in Gqeberha.

During the pandemic more than 2.8 million workers have lost their jobs, many of them highly skilled. In our current economic system, not even skills can protect you from unemployment, poverty and inequality. We need to put those skills to work in developing a solidarity economy.

The majority of South Africans are young, with two-thirds of the population under 34. The labour force is made up of 22.3 million people who can be employed, but more than 11.4 million of them (even if you only take the government’s estimates) are unemployed. This number would be higher if you included those who have given up looking for work and homemakers who are categorised with the 17.1 million people who are labelled not economically active, even though they would take any job.

The unemployment crisis is not fundamentally due to a skills shortage, as some technocrats and academics argue. In the course of the pandemic more than 2.8 million workers have lost their jobs, many of them highly skilled – not to mention growing unemployment among Technical Vocational Education and Training and university graduates. In our current economic system, not even skills can protect you from unemployment, poverty and inequality.

This proves that under capitalism unemployment is a permanent reality – which countless agreements, strategies, consultancy reports, “affirmative” laws and “active labour market policies” will not resolve because it is intrinsic to this economic system. This is why we must test ideas about work and learning and livelihoods that exist outside conventional economic categories of capitalist production systems.

Skills are important to all human beings because they help to build a good society in which many types of work are required, reducing dependence on importing goods and skills. A good education system will do that – not one that reproduces the skills required by capitalism, which is highly dependent on the unpaid work of women and domestic labour. Then there is how we understand the word “skill”. We have to talk about skills for what, for whom and how they are developed and related to society. Talking about skills the way labour market analysts do is deceptive because the purpose of so-called skilled work is capitalist reproduction.

Who owns and controls the skills is another key question. In capitalism, the worker only owns a skill nominally – in name, not substance – because she/he cannot use it for socially useful purposes, except when the very system and structures of the economy change. Until then the worker must sell the skill for money – just like other goods (bread, sugar, tea, building material, a car). It only attaches to the worker for sale to the boss, not for its creative value. Even the creative work in households – hundreds of simple and complex jobs – is done mainly to support the labour bought by the capitalists on a daily/weekly/contract basis.

Improving one’s skills under capitalism is necessary to get a better capitalist price unless you can break away from capitalism through an alternative system. Yebo, workers need higher wages, etc, and are therefore obliged to improve their skills. But how much greater would the benefit be if they also controlled them and used them for social purposes, not for the profit of someone who owns and controls their skills and knowledge?

A result of this unemployment crisis is hunger. In South Africa, more than 10 million people go to bed hungry every week. Three million of them are children. The price of food continues to increase, resulting in the average cost of monthly household groceries rising to R4,135. How paradoxical when the very farmworkers who produce our food cannot afford it.

According to the Household Affordability Index compiled by the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group, the cost of household food baskets in Durban, Cape Town and Pietermaritzburg rose marginally this month by R31.87, R51.28 and R12.04, respectively, while in Johannesburg and Springbok they declined marginally by R28.45 and R21.03. Given these figures, the food unrest we saw in some parts of the country makes sense.

People have formed community farms and linked them with community kitchens so they can eat together – a form of solidarity in a time of despair. We have also seen people in working-class communities creating backyard gardens and exchanging their yields.

We have seen many community health workers giving produce from their gardens at community clinics to patients who are defaulting on treatment because they do not have food to complement treatment. And at the fences of community farms, people are buying vegetables they can afford.

In this time we have also seen the role spaza shops play in working-class communities, packaging sugar in plastic and selling it for R1, selling loose tea bags for 50c, or slicing bread to sell at very low prices. They do this with oil, beef stock, beans, rice, vegetables and meat, too.

We have also seen how they let people take goods on credit, while street hawkers do the same. This is not something you find in supermarkets and malls; it is based on spaza shops and street hawkers understanding the struggles of the community in which they operate – an act of solidarity to accommodate the market.

We have also seen the role of stokvels, savings clubs and amafela. The Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group reported that payments into stokvels are not being skipped. In fact, more members are taking loans from stokvels to buy extra staple foods outside the usual end-of-year payment window. Women with extra money saved in stokvels can withdraw it. Although there is little money available in most stokvels, there is enough to lend, which is also why members are being asked to continue paying in, the group reports.

We have seen how communities like Sali-Tubali in Kwazakhele, a cooperative of 36 houses, generate their own renewable electricity and sell it to the municipality and Rubicon, and how many informal settlement communities like Rolihlahla are finding alternative ways to get electricity into their houses using their unrecognised energy skills. 

We have seen how community construction workers collaborate to extend people’s houses, retrofit rooftops and make brick fences at affordable prices. Some create bricks collectively to sell to community markets at reasonable prices, while others use their mechanical skills to fix cars at affordable rates, or use their plumbing skills to fix burst pipes and drains, geysers and water leaks during the Eastern Cape drought.

We need to respond to the question of how, in addition to the many social justice and citizenship purposes, skills can support the development of useful livelihoods and income generation based on collective and cooperative work that is socially useful.

These are the principles of a solidarity economy that are necessary for sustaining and reproducing societies and protecting the environment. DM


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All Comments 6

  • We compete with the world and the only way South Africa will ever be successful is with a true solidarity economy.

    Life is not fair, but South Africans must bite the bullet and compromise, putting aside race, politics, ethnicity, gender and grudges as these are the dead-end traps that will doom us all.

    The solution is staring us in the face.

    Work together.

    It will never make life fair, but it will make it better. For everyone.

  • The author presents a fantastic list of small-scale community projects – in which skills are sold and/or exchanged for goods. This is a great example of entrepreneurial thinking and business development. We need much more of this to build South Africa.

  • It is good to see someone recognising the main problem of South Africa is value added employment. And it is great to hear of these projects where people have created wealth creating activities. We need much more and these heroes need to be used as examples and publicised more instead of the criminal activities. However, whatever system is used to manage the country there has to be recognition of the education levels of most of the people to be employed. Imagine if all 11.7 million people unemployed were employed at the minimum rate of pay. Two things, the economy would be many times bigger than it is today, and there would be a need for at least 1.17 million managers to manage the employees. How do we do that. Manufacturing, it is the only economic activity which can be placed where the people are. Services will hang on where people are employed and live. Manufacture what? All the imports that we consume or use in housing, food, clothing and transport. It can be done – I was doing it back in the 1960’s in Zambia, when the government was serious about economic growth and employment and facilitated entrepreneurs to establish factories.

  • Stokvels are capital formation and investing institutions. Co-operative generation and sale of electricity, community construction workers collaborating to extend people’s houses, retrofitting rooftops and making brick fences at affordable (read competitive) prices, creating bricks collectively to sell to community markets at reasonable (read competitive) prices, fixing cars at affordable (read competitive) rates … geese, how much more capitalist free market can you get?

  • Interesting article but inaccurate, perhaps thinking/rationale confused…”This proves that under capitalism unemployment is a permanent reality “. Yet the very solution proposed called economic solidarity or a social economy is a capitalist or free market driven economy at grass roots level. I whole heartedly agree the route proposed to reduce and eventually end unemployment is to empower individuals to use their skills to participate in producing goods and services at a price that others, the free market, will buy. The problem we have is too much intervention and regulation of this more natural open economic enterprise order of things. That’s how the world worked before Governments got too involved. Removing the entitlement philosophy promoted by socialist thinking, empowering the individual and facilitating, helping, promoting the creation of enterprise/business is the route to a brighter sustainable future.

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