Defend Truth


Unemployment and the unemployable: The scale, the smoke and mirrors, the realities and the solutions


Simon Mantell served articles with a big four audit firm and runs a biscuit factory in Cape Town.

The inconvenient truths are that our government lacks competence and the problem of our unemployed is intractable because the majority are unskilled as a result of an education system that has left them functionally illiterate and innumerate, and therefore unemployable.

The latest official unemployment rate of 34.8% confirms that 7.8 million South Africans are without jobs, while various reports suggest that almost two out of every three individuals in the 18-34 age group are unemployed and unlikely to ever find regular work.

When the official unemployment rate is expanded to those who have given up looking for work, then the true unemployment rate is 44% or a massive 9.8 million citizens.

Put into context, the total number of unemployed South Africans could fill Soccer City in Johannesburg 100 times over, or if they stood in single file along the N1 from Cape Town to Johannesburg with the mandatory 2m Covid spacing, then the jobless could form 13 separate lines between these two major economic centres.

The scale of the unemployment crisis is so critical that solutions to provide alleviation for what warrants a declaration of a national State of Emergency should be a key focus for any competent government.

Unfortunately, the inconvenient truths are that our government lacks competence and the problem of our unemployed is intractable because the majority are unskilled as a result of an education system which has left them functionally illiterate and innumerate and therefore unemployable.

Confronting the smoke and mirrors ‘job creation’ claims

Economists and politicians’ default setting with respect to unemployment is their smoke and mirrors claim of job creation and how a growing economy will absorb the unemployed. 

To be quite clear, there is no such thing as “job creation”, because jobs in the private sector are never created. Rather, consistent and practical economic policy provides the enabling environment for a growing economy, resulting in increased demand for goods and services which, depending on the level of automation in the specific sector, may lead to limited new job opportunities.

These job opportunities only become relevant if those who are unemployed have the necessary skills to match the opportunities, and in the context of South Africa there is a total mismatch.

Employers who have frequent exposure to unskilled citizens fully comprehend the massive disadvantages the majority of unemployed face and their practical experience at the employment coalface confirms how unhinged the assumptions of economists and politicians are with respect to pie in the sky notions of job creation.

The premise of job creation is a false one and the absence of any meaningful skills in the vast majority of unemployed South Africans means that there is little or no opportunity for employment, even in the unlikely event that our economy were to grow exponentially.

Accepting the realities

While apartheid South Africa consigned the majority to sub-standard education by setting the bar as low as possible, the ANC, since 1994 has gone one better by removing the education bar altogether and in doing so, the government is consigning tens of millions of citizens to a future life not dissimilar to that of economic slavery.

The promise of a better life for all continues to ring hollow as almost a million young people exit a failed educational system each year, whereas the benefit of teaching excellence should be their constitutional right. 

Based on my experiences and interactions with blue-collar workers over the last 25 years and who typically become the first victims of recession and unemployment, it is apparent that the education they have received, notwithstanding their Grade 10, 11 or even matric certificates, does not equate in practical terms to the education and lived experiences enjoyed by a child in Grade 6 at a former Model C or private school. 

Their limited knowledge of all the units of measure and the absence of an understanding of elementary arithmetic place them at a massive disadvantage. This is exacerbated by a lack of comprehension of either the written or spoken word brought about by the absence of any educational rigour in their schooling which is afforded to middle-class children and is best illustrated by those hated comprehension tests which eventually stand middle-class children in good stead for employment in later life. 

It is important to note that the majority of the unemployed have in all probability also grown up in a family environment where they have never experienced a “normal situation” where their parents and siblings of working age enjoy full-time employment. 

Unlike the middle class, who can access services from the private sector, the vast majority of unemployed are reliant on a dysfunctional government and its agencies where every touchpoint for them is sub-standard. In townships, they are reliant upon a chaotic SA Police Service for security, exposed to a pathetic educational system, dependent on misfiring government hospitals (the exception being the well-run Western Cape government hospitals), and receive unacceptable housing and ancillary services.  

The net effect is that they are consistently exposed to dysfunction and mediocrity and never experience anything exceptional in their lives that would serve as the catalyst to not only dream but to also empower them to live out those dreams. 

The township education system has and will continue to consign millions to a destiny of a life of unemployment or at best, hard manual labour, and Covid has provided a wonderful excuse for the government to further abdicate its responsibilities to millions more learners whose education over the last two years has become even more diabolical.

In grasping the stinging nettle, it must be accepted that the vast majority of unemployed will remain unemployed for the reasons outlined above and if quality primary and secondary education is not provided, then 10 years from now, South Africa will have 20 million and not just 10 million unemployable citizens.

Seeking solutions

One achievable solution for the majority of the current cohort of unemployed to gain some form of employment is a basic income grant whose payment is linked to their participation in purpose-driven labour-intensive public works programmes within affected communities whose initial focus is aimed at improving living conditions and which can be expanded upon at a later stage.

The other solution requires that the government accepts that it has neither the capacity nor the competence to provide quality education to the masses and that all the complex moving parts of education be handed over to the private sector to execute on behalf of the government. 

The above will no doubt be anathema to the ANC apparatchiks as it will require an unreserved admission of failure and their acceptance of a new path to be charted which is diametrically opposed to their statist dogma. 

Rather, the ANC will continue to preside over the dumbing down of future generations while continuing to feed the unemployed a diet of lies which began in 2009 when Jacob Zuma and Trevor Manuel promised to create 500,000 new jobs in six months and halve unemployment and poverty by 2014. 

Why is it that throughout the history of South Africa, politicians have consistently chosen the low road instead of capitalising on our rich human and natural resources so that a better life for all can be realised? DM


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  • P G Muller says:

    Nice deep article Simon…no corruption mentioned …….!
    I recall the Clem Sunter High-Low Road presentations in the early 90s…..
    To remain on the road and to try for the high road education and more focus on education was a requirement …
    As is common practice politicians do not look at the Power Point Presentations ! Why is the next question….

    • Chris Lane says:

      If politicians and government employees are inept, incompetent and corrupt, how are the youth going to ever get of the lifecycle that has doomed them to a life of non-existence.

  • Desmond McLeod says:

    Great article! My question still stands why, when the ANC came to power, did they not set as first priority education of the masses? Why did they not establish night schools to perform adult education to educate the masses that burned and boycotted schools from the seventies? Two entire generations, who brought the ANC to power, ignored and left to be unemployable!
    Instead the ANC in their wisdom, decided it was more important to waste taxpayers money on unnecessary arms and ammunition!

  • Ritchie Morris says:

    Other solutions: (A) Create Work farms on two scales. (1) Small urban & peri-urban market gardens – there is much unused space in most large cities & medium sized rural towns. (2) Large scale kibbutz-style farms where a multitude of skills can be taught & applied – fencing, tunnels, stock rearing, fish farming, maintenance, packing & processing, etc. I traveled through rural Transkei towards the end of last year, the poor use of what were productive agricultural lands years ago is obvious to see. Deploy competent agricultural extension officers – partner with farmers.
    (B) Change the idea of the proposed Basic Income Grant to a Community Services Income. Wealth or value must be created. Providing a freebie will be harmful to society and is affordably.
    (C) Incentivize smaller families. If this had been done 20 years ago the current situation may not be so bad. (D) Finally, control the inward migration of unskilled persons from the north – as hard as it sounds, the reality is that the extra 3 to 5 million people in South Africa are increasing the competition for jobs, accommodation, health services, etc & causing the country’s social & economic carrying capacities to be exceeded more than they should be. What is also now occurring is exceedance of the country’s environmental & physical carrying capacities – just look at the dysfunctional/overloaded sewage treatment works & the inability to distribute water in Johannesburg – the pumps & pipes cannot cope with the demand.

    • Charles Parr says:

      Ritchie, your suggestions just got better and better while I read this. I particularly like the idea of kibbutz-style farming as farms require so many different skills but it also requires hard work which is not what youngsters are looking for today. Unfortunately too many people have got too wealthy doing too little (actually zero value add) and working is particularly unattractive.

  • Sandra Goldberg says:

    A good and thoughtful article-the idea that the social grants payments should be linked to public works participation is an excellent one – handouts give a very temporary solution and are self defeating in the long term. Rebuilding public structures would not require a decent education level and could be done by the masses of unskilled labor under proper supervision . Is the government listening to valid suggestions? Most likely not, it is too embroiled in disgraceful faction fighting.

  • Charles Parr says:

    Thanks Simon, what a meaningful article. Your image of the number of unemployed people forming 13 rows of people from CT to Jhb is so thought provoking and that alone needs to be shoved under the nose of every politician and they should be made to explain what they have done to alleviate the situation. We clearly need to have a very serious look at family planning in this country, and indeed throughout Africa.

  • Alan Keen says:

    What a great article, but how do we get this message out to the very people who put the ANC into power but who are also totally dependent on the government to get them out of their predicament?

  • Bryan Shepstone says:

    One would’ve thought this type of thinking would be obvious? But clearly it is not. Shame on the ANC selling their people down the river.

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