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Social employment — creating work that serves the common good


Kate Philip is the Programme Lead for the Presidential Employment Stimulus.

As part of Phase Two of the Presidential Employment Stimulus, a Social Employment Fund has been established. The fund is being championed by the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition as part of its support for the social and solidarity economy, with the Industrial Development Corporation as fund manager. The application window for Strategic Implementing Partners is open until 8 December.

South Africa’s levels of unemployment are corroding our society and its social fabric. They are compounding deep and damaging development deficits in every community. Currently, unused labour is a wasted national asset whose value we are letting slip through our collective hands like sand, while the social problems caused by unemployment continue to mount in communities across the country.  

The human toll is incalculable. In addition, if left unchecked, current levels of unemployment pose a risk to social stability. This would undermine the prospects for the very economic recovery on which employment relies. A vicious cycle indeed. How might we turn it around? 

Of course, the priority is to get the economy into the kind of high gear that can create decent work at the scale required. Right now, however, markets are still reeling from the pandemic — nor were they so healthy beforehand, either. The structural changes necessary to kick-start growth are formidable and even in a best-case scenario, will take time to yield results.  

We don’t have time. This is why direct public investment in employment and livelihoods is such a crucial component of the wider economic recovery agenda. Its advantage is that it can create jobs right now, while the crucial, but longer-term processes of market-based economic recovery gather momentum. And let’s face it — right now is when we need more jobs.  

This is the sense of urgency that has informed the Presidential Employment Stimulus, which President Cyril Ramaphosa announced in October 2020. After providing jobs and livelihood support to more than 550,000 people in Phase One — in less than a year — the stimulus aims to exceed this in Phase Two, launched in October 2021.  

Phase Two of the stimulus includes a diverse portfolio of programmes designed to support employment creation and livelihoods, involving 15 implementing departments. The school assistants programme, which created more than 300,000 jobs for young people in Phase One, is back. A new cohort of more than 250,000 young people is already in post. 

There are new programmes too, including a revitalised National Youth Service programme that will recruit 35,000 participants; public employment programmes in the metros; innovation to create jobs in waste value chains; a graduate programme in partnership with universities, and more — all outlined here.

Among these new programmes is a focus on “social employment,” with the launch of a Social Employment Fund that will create work for 50,000 people. President Cyril Ramaphosa has explained its rationale:

“We are working on the premise that there is no shortage of work to be done to address the many social problems in our society. The aim is to support the considerable creativity, initiative and institutional capabilities that exist in the wider society to engage people in work that serves the common good.”  

While the term “social employment” is new, its intention is to foreground the hard work already being done by civil society organisations to enable community-driven solutions to local problems. The work being undertaken takes many forms, from community safety initiatives to food kitchens, urban agriculture, early childhood development and the fight against gender-based violence. It enables dance, drama, public art, sport and the full gamut of activities needed to feed the soul even in the face of hunger and other deprivations.  

What all of these forms of work share is that they serve the common good. At their best, they do so in ways that unlock local creativity and agency, building local participation and strengthening mutual support systems and resilience in communities.  

Yet, too often, the work of civil society and community-based organisations is under-resourced, under-recognised and reliant on volunteer labour from within resource-poor communities. Resources are too thinly spread and the work can be hard to sustain. Instead, we need to build deep, dense networks of organisations able to knit communities together, contributing in diverse ways to a culture of participation in which people feel — and indeed, are — seen and heard. This, in turn, provides the scaffolding needed to strengthen meaningful partnerships with local government and other public bodies, in which the future is co-created rather than “delivered”. 

Far from substituting for the vital roles of local government and other public bodies in delivering core infrastructure and services, social employment supports complementary community-driven activities, with the impacts of these likely to be strongest where collaborative partnerships with public bodies are possible. What matters, however, is to enable community initiative and agency alongside government delivery. 

Core to the social employment approach is the recognition that unemployed people in communities are a powerful resource for development, and that even where labour might not have a market value, it has — and can create — social value. More to the point: even where people’s labour may have no market value, people have value — and have value to offer to their communities, through their actions and engagement.

This is a far cry from the message that unemployed people currently receive, which casts them as “dependent,” as a burden, as surplus to the requirements of society. For many, this has deeply negative psycho-social impacts that manifest as depression and despair, converting all too easily into alienation and anger at a status quo that measures their value only as a commodity for which there is little demand.   

What we need are instruments able to recognise and unlock the value that people have to offer, at the scale necessary to make an impact in communities — creating employment in the process. The Social Employment Fund is one such instrument, intended to support organisations to deliver meaningful work at greater scale. 

While the work needs to be non-profit in character, the focus on “work that serves the common good” is intentionally broad, on the assumption that communities are best placed to define it in their context. There is typically no shortage of ideas — with the figure below providing just a taste of the kind of “social imagination” that a participatory process can produce. 

(Graphic: Supplied)

Some of these forms of work have the potential to transition to social enterprise, with social employment providing a de-risking function as capacities and demand are built. Yet, desirable as transitions to enterprise-based activity are, there is no assumption that all forms of social employment can or should have a direct pathway into market-based activity reliant on a cost-recovery logic. Even where they do not, however, they often nevertheless contribute to economic development outcomes. 

Take placemaking, for example. This is about transforming the use of public space in ways that build people’s sense of belonging, safety, access and ownership — with opportunities for recreation and inspiration important too. The curation of regular activities that bring people together to use such spaces is a common ingredient. Often, enhanced community safety is one of the outcomes. This improves the enabling environment for local business activity and in addition, wherever people gather, market opportunities are created. 

The critical challenge now is to institutionalise this approach on terms that do indeed deliver these outcomes. Part of the challenge is to do so at levels of scale, in a context in which opportunities to design for scale have been rare, despite the scale of social need. Key to the “proof of concept” here will be whether collaborative partnerships can be built, in which more capacitated organisations enable participation by grassroots organisations and strengthen them in the process.

Right now, the Presidential Employment Stimulus provides us with a unique sandbox for innovation in the use of public employment to create real social value for participants and communities alike. Can we seize the opportunity the Social Employment Fund creates, and use this development instrument to co-create a different kind of music? Can we dance to a different tune, in new forms of partnership — learning new moves as we go? Let’s try. DM/MC

Kate Philip writes this in her personal capacity.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Mary Hammond-Tooke says:

    This has huge potential!!
    “Currently, unused labour is a wasted national asset whose value we are letting slip through our collective hands like sand…: even where people’s labour may have no market value, people have value — and have value to offer to their communities, through their actions and engagement”.

  • chris butters says:

    Excellent article and overview of the thought/knowledge/experience behind social employment, in times where the economy needs stimulus interventions. Thank you. Having to hope that the money is monitored and on the whole properly used.
    Environmental programs such as tree planting are a long term winner (not always easy to do properly). With a climate/CO2 spinoff too. Think especially of future bioenergy sources in rural areas, through fast growing species – such as spekboom, bluegums, salix …? Must be anchored in and managed by the communities.
    Placemaking (my background is architect/urban planner/sustainability) : remember the award winning Dignified Spaces Program initiated by Barbara Southworth and the City of Capetown on the Cape flats some years ago, around 2001-03? Great lessons to learn from that; small, simple interventions to put some sense into the chaos..
    Corrugated iron when the shine wears off turns shacks into ovens, The World Bank including a good colleague of mine in Washington executed a huge program in countries including India called “Cool Roofs”. All they did was paint roofs white. This makes the living conditions several degrees cooler. Smart and so simple!!

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