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South Africa’s jobless crisis is not just a social and economic emergency — it is a very real security threat


Nontobeko Hlela worked as a political science lecturer at the then University of Durban-Westville, as an intelligence officer at the then SASS, and as the First Secretary: Political at the High Commission of South Africa in Nairobi from 2010 to 2014. She currently works as a Researcher for the South African office of the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research, a Global South think-tank with offices in Johannesburg, São Paulo, Buenos Aires and Delhi.

It is time that we started thinking differently. It is time we started creating massive labour-intensive social programmes. It is time that we did away with the tender system. We need an urgent economic compact with the aim of beginning to offer hope to the millions of people without work.

It is almost seven months since the July 2021 riots, and we do not seem to have learnt anything from them. We continue to be obsessed with big personalities, and to think that we will be “saved” by them. We continue our now very tiresome obsession with the politicking and shenanigans within the governing party. We continue to deteriorate under a governing party that is obsessed with its own internal issues to the detriment of South Africans. We continue to enact and push economic policies that make the wealthy wealthier and the poor poorer — policies that have made us the most unequal society in the world and the country with one of the highest unemployment rates of states not at war.

The July riots were not a surprise, what is surprising is that they took so long to happen. The conspiratorial understandings of the riots, which predominate in the media, are marked by a complete failure to understand the desperation of most South Africans’ lives. A country with our levels of inequality and unemployment is bound to have social unrest. A South African who does not have a job doesn’t have many prospects of getting one.

What future can you look forward to if you cannot feed yourself or your family, have a safe roof over your head, pay lobola to get married and look after your elderly parents? This is not just an economic issue, it is also a social one. This lack of prospects cuts away at people’s self-esteem. It leads them to lose their sense of self, a sense of a shared future or belonging to a South African dream.

The elites have become so far removed from people’s lives and struggles that they don’t seem to realise that the infighting and non-ending factional battles within the governing party have a real impact on people’s lives. Every quarter Stats SA tells us that the unemployment rate has shot up again. This is met with nothing but a yawn. There is no sense that this is a massive social crisis, one that will inevitably result in more riots when another spark lands on the tinder.

Despite a 4.1% unemployment rate, US President Joe Biden faces one of the lowest approval rates of any president at this point in their presidency. Why? Because of rising costs of groceries and fuel, and other goods. If things stay this way, it is predicted that the Democrats will lose the 2022 mid-term elections giving the Republicans control of Congress.

Yet, we sit in a country where unemployment is at 46.6% and 75% for the youth and our politicians dither. The unemployment crisis is the biggest emergency that this country has, yet it appears as if it doesn’t even register on our radar, and it is not clear what our politicians are doing to address this crisis.

These levels of unemployment are not only an embarrassment to this country and an indictment of how people’s aspirations have been put asunder. Such levels of unemployment are a security threat to any nation state. This kind of social devastation is not just fuel for the food riots to come. It is also inevitable that there will be more xenophobic attacks, as the “other” is scapegoated because this is much easier than holding our elected representatives to account.

We see this conceptual laziness and ethical depravity across the political spectrum as political parties to the right, centre and pseudo-left of the political spectrum increasingly use the rhetoric of the “foreigner” as a problem. Of course, xenophobia has become a global problem as the rich get richer and everyone else gets poorer. But in our country, it takes the form of horrific violence in the streets while the police stand down.

These levels of unemployment also open the country up to the possible radicalisation of the unemployed youth by authoritarian and far right-wing forces. We have an extremist Islamist insurgency right on our doorstep in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province, an insurgency waged by impoverished young men who have watched politically connected elites get rich. It does not take much to use social media to spread propaganda, target, and recruit youths. In the absence of progressive organisation, youths who are disaffected and see no future for themselves are a gift for any right wing or even terrorist organisation.

Aside from a rapid surge in middle-class emigration, particularly from KwaZulu-Natal, the riots only really changed one thing, the temporary restoration of the Covid-19 grant. It goes without saying that this was necessary, but every survey shows that people want jobs, not grants. Of course, they will take the grants, and gladly, if they have no other options. But grants are only a pacifying measure in the context of a massive social crisis. The devastation caused by mass unemployment is a national emergency that cannot be left to the state or the governing party, both of which are in a state of acute degeneration.

This is an emergency that demands that all hands must be on deck — the trade unions, community movements, the private sector, professional associations, and civil society. We cannot keep talking about the Fourth Industrial Revolution and smart cities when we are failing at basic things like feeding people and when we are not skilling our youths to even be able to take part in the new that will sweep away what’s left of our old certainties.

In this country, we seem obsessed with the new, the smart, the technologically savvy. Yet, we cannot do the current, the manual, and the labour intensive. We keep doing the same things over and over and hoping for different results, results that are never going to come. Even the World Bank says that the nature of our economic growth is not pro-poor, doesn’t create enough jobs and our inequality is inter-generational.

It is time that we started thinking differently. It is time that we started creating jobs for the skills that we actually have. It is time we started creating massive labour-intensive social programmes that will employ as many people as possible. It is time that we did away with the tender system that has become the biggest curse of this country, the source of appalling looting and the decline or even destruction of our institutions. We need an urgent economic compact that can take a fresh look at things with the aim of beginning to offer hope to the millions of people without work.

One part of this solution could be to employ people through the Public Works Department rather than through “Johnny-come-lately” companies only bent on getting tenders. Let Public Works hire people to fix the potholes, the broken traffic lights, cut the grass, clean the verges and stormwater pipes and remove all the rubbish on the side of our roads. The money will be going directly to the people and not some tenderpreneur who will pocket 90% of the funds while the work is not done properly, or even not done at all.

Let the government, private sector and unions work together to resuscitate our manufacturing industry in textiles, iron, and steel, and build beneficiation of our minerals. If we invest in rebuilding our skills base and protect ourselves from cheap imports we can begin to rebuild factories and get people working again. If nothing else, the Covid-19 pandemic has shown us how quickly logistics can be strangled. Let’s stop depending on Asia and manufacture at home.

We also need a re-look at our education system. We need to stop the obsession with sending every child that finishes matric to university. Countries like Germany and Sweden have about the same number or more school leavers going to vocational training than universities. Trades are the backbone of any society, yet we have relegated them to the backburner and treated them as inferior. They are not and we need to stop treating them as such. 

Our Tvet institutions are the engines that need to drive this, yet most are failing. This is another area in which collaboration can take place between industry and the state. Industry knows what skill sets it needs, let it sit with the Tvets and work out courses that are fit for purpose. This will ensure that kids leave education institutions with the necessary theoretical and technical knowledge, but also placement opportunities in industry. These are easy wins.

However, instead of thinking strategically we are all focused on the endless noise of intra-political party dynamics, which are not taking our country anywhere. We do not seem to appreciate the extent of the risk into which this untenable economic situation puts this country, through the inevitable social unrest and domestic political instability.  We cannot sustain an unemployment rate of 46.6% and bleed a million jobs a year and expect things to carry on as they are.

Let us not sit on the sidelines and shrug our shoulders like bystanders. We have the power to change the course of this country if we have the will to organise and put pressure on our elected representatives and business. This is our country. These are our children. This is our future. DM

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