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Rebuilding flood-ravaged provinces provides government with opportunity to create jobs

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Thamsanqa D Malinga is director at Mkabayi Management Consultants; a writer, columnist, and political commentator, as well as author of Blame Me on Apartheid and A Dream Betrayed.

If the adage of not letting a good crisis go to waste is to be taken into consideration after the floods, it would be foolish of our government to not use this opportunity to regain the trust of the citizenry.

The recent floods that engulfed KwaZulu-Natal as well as the Eastern Cape have been described using almost every word in the word list that speaks of unimaginable disaster. Not even the floods of Durban in the 1980s had elders speaking in horror of coffins “flowing in the streets”. This is a human disaster of unimaginable proportions.

A large part of KZN would need no less than a year to be brought back to a normal state. There lies the opportunity for the governing party – not forgetting the individuals and factions who like to position themselves saviours of the people – and the contentious issue of employment, the often-used political tool.

This time, however, this needs not be pie in the sky. Long-term employment, not the numbers game that is the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP), is a blessing that has been brought about by the merciless torrential rains.

Rebuilding after a natural disaster does not have a universal template where a copy-and-paste approach can be taken. It all depends on the swiftness of the policymakers, and this is one area that has shown that we are lacking as a country. The KZN disaster has shown how poor we are in responding and planning for a disaster. The province was hit by floods in the Easter of 2019 and from that incident we never planned for another possibility. With the recent 2022 floods the reaction of the Cabinet was appalling, to say the least. Non-governmental organisations were first on the scene, with Cabinet taking a decision only when they saw the number of casualties rising.

Right now, we cannot dwell on the lack of rapid action from the government. What the authorities need to consider is the matter of “not letting a crisis go to waste”. Amid the devastation engulfing KZN as well as the Eastern Cape lies the opportunity for the government – utilising the personpower and myriad skills lying idle and making up more than 70% of unemployed youth.

In his State of the Province Address earlier this year, KZN Premier Sihle Zikalala said “unemployment remained a concern for the province’s economy” as the unemployment rate had risen to 28.7% from about 23% before the pandemic. This is only the official unemployment rate – with the expanded unemployment rate sitting at 49%.

Waxing lyrical in praise of Finance Minister Enoch Gondongwana’s Budget speech, President Cyril Ramaphosa called it “a budget for growth and employment”. This Budget promised billions upon billions for small businesses (R15-billion in loan guarantee schemes), local government (R30-billion for basic municipal services), infrastructure development (catalytic projects such as “upgrading of roads, bridges, water and sewer infrastructure, transport, schools, hospitals and clinics”) as well as a “stimulus to provide vital income, skills development and work experience to hundreds of thousands of unemployed, mostly young, people” (R18,4-billion).

The vultures are salivating over money intended for the greater good, but this is no time for avarice. 

Based on the president’s State of the Nation Address promises, the commitments by the minister of finance and the deliberations of the Cabinet disaster management caucus (albeit prolonged with delayed decisions), the disaster funds from National Treasury as well as other funds already committed prior to the KZN floods present an opportunity for job creation and economic revival of the province. This could be a test case for South Africa on how to use an unfortunate event to fight unemployment and build a sense of nationalism.

The reality we face is that it is going to take more than a year, probably two years, to get KZN back to normal – and using the reconstruction period to make it better and being able to survive future floods.

We need to shy away from the popular belief that South Africa has a skills shortage. We have a lot of graduates, among them engineers, standing at traffic lights handing out CVs. Seventy percent of young people sit without jobs. This is an opportunity for government departments and provincial governments to work together to send labour to various parts of KZN. This is an opportunity to go back to the forgotten communities and build proper bridges and roads.

“All roads lead to KZN” should be the government recruitment strategy over the next few months. I saw an advert from the Department of Human Settlements in KZN calling on retired professionals in the built environment to help and thought, if this is the only solution, we are going to miss a golden opportunity here.

In a disaster, you call on all available resources – in this instance we need to make sure that work integrated learning, in-service training, learnerships and skills programmes, as implemented by Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETAs) under the auspices of the Department of Higher Education, are included in the rebuilding of infrastructure in the affected areas.

If the departments and provinces continue to work in silos, we are going to waste a good crisis. The Ministries of Human Settlements, Public Works, Water, Higher Education, Labour and others need to come together. Get unemployed people from all over the country to be part of the rebuilding programmes, make sure that companies that are involved prioritise South Africans – not for any other reason but to fight unemployment – empower people with skills and build a sense of working together.

South Africa has for years survived on internal labour migration. Instead of having people from KZN and Eastern Cape flock to Gauteng and other provinces in search of jobs, the KZN and Eastern Cape disasters present an opportunity for other provinces to send labour and also foster decentralisation. DM

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