Ferial Haffajee: Unemployment - the mountain we've made into a molehill

Ferial Haffajee (Gallo Images / City Press / Herman Verwey)
Ferial Haffajee (Gallo Images / City Press / Herman Verwey)

As I joined the crowds streaming into Gallagher Estate, the venue for the Presidential Jobs Summit on Thursday, it was clear that summits make jobs. The jury is out on whether they lead to sustained employment. 

It’s my third Jobs Summit, and as with the others before it, there is an air of hope outside and inside the venue. South Africa’s unemployment problem is so long-term, and so chronic, that any focused political attention to the crisis is welcome.

As a long-standing labour reporter, I’ve long clicked to the fact that joblessness is so much a part of the fabric of South African life that we have made a molehill of what should be a mountain.

South Africa’s labour statistics yield a quarterly cry of derision as StatsSA reminds us of the crisis, but then our national character means the problem is filed into the bottom drawer of the suite of priorities as we fight race wars, debate land and perform daily outrage at one thing or the other. 

It’s the sum of our history and the dramatic quality of our DNA, but employment, I’ve always felt, gets the ass end of our attention spans.

Until a Jobs Summit focuses momentary attention.

But my view is that like the others before it, this one will yield nothing beyond the on-day employment creation you witness. South Africa is brilliant at the field of tourism called MICE – meetings, incentives, conferences and events. At the Jobs Summit, this is clear: there are casual jobs galore for security guards, accreditation officials, parking attendants and waiters and waitresses. The young people who do this work are invariably young and black and employed per gig – they know their stuff and have done it before. 

But the Jobs Summit is not considering boosting the gig economy and making it a stepping stone rather than the dead-end it can be.  Casual or freelance work is a growing sector, but with South Africa’s labour voice dominated by old-fashioned trade unions, new forms of work that may be nascent and offer opportunity won’t get a look-in at the summit.  

Instead, the middle-aged men and women who run the labour movement are going to push hard to protect old forms of labour: the full-time job with benefits that is now a dated employment form, not only in South Africa, but around the world.  I’m not being a cruel Thatcherite to note this, but a simple tally of where future jobs lie will show this to be true.

As workers become more skilled, they can command better salaries and undertake significant mobility across jobs, but the labour market is throttled at the level of access where flexibility is required. Unless we don’t make access easier for young people, South Africa will add to the six million young people already tallied as unemployed.

The public sector unions – the civil service unions Nehawu and the Public Service Association; the teachers union Sadtu and the municipal workers union Samwu – are likely to be the significant voices and they will push against the state trimming the size of the 1.3-million-strong workforce.  

Unions still prevalent in the private sector will push to protect jobs where the long-standing decline in manufacturing is being matched with similar losses in the bedrock mining sector.

I don’t mean to be a cynic, but as a Jobs Summit veteran, what happens is that an agreement is signed at the end of the Summit.  Everybody agrees and feels good that there is a national jobs pact and then it is rapidly forgotten under the weight of all our other problems.

Madoda Vilakazi, the executive director of the National Economic Development and Labour Advisory Council (Nedlac) says this one will be different because monitoring the pledges and plans will be intrinsic to planning. 

I hope he is right, but what I’ve learnt in twenty-odd years as a labour reporter is that economic growth, confidence and innovation yield employment as an outcome. Of course, South Africa suffered a period of jobless growth, but on the whole, when the country was growing, so did jobs. In that time, this ensured the middle-class grew significantly and took pressure off a working class that carries too much of the burden. 

That was a recipe which worked, and if we returned to that, we wouldn’t need the job festivals which create little employment while generating a lot of commentary about work.  

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