South Africa shed 2.2 million jobs during the second quarter, according to Statistics South Africa (Stats SA).
While the employment figures reflected the largest decline in employment between the second and first quarter since 2008, Stats SA on Tuesday said unemployment fell substantially as well, decreasing by 2.8 million to 4.3 million. The official employment rate is now 23.3%, compared to the first quarter's 30.1%.
Peter Attard Montalto, economist at Intellidex said that it is best to rely on the expanded definition of unemployment - which would see the rate between 42.6% and 52.7%, which is more realistic.
The expanded definition includes persons who were not employed when surveyed and were available to work but did not look for work either because they are discouraged from looking for work or did not look for work for other reasons other than discouragement.
Weighing in on the latest statistics, chief economist at the Bureau for Economic Research Hugo Pienaar explained that while the number of employed people declined by 2.2 million, the size of the labour force declined by much more - that is by 5 million. "This is why the unemployment rate came down."
As to why the labour force declined, Pienaar explained that during the hard lockdown in April, people were not allowed to leave their homes unless they were considered essential workers or to buy food. "You were not allowed to go out and look for a job if you were unemployed at that stage," he said. Millions less people were actively searching for a job and this resulted in a large decline in the labour force, he said.
"This is temporary. In the third quarter, with the economy opening up again, people can look for work again. The labour force will increase again, I imagine quite dramatically," he added.
Economists had anticipated record high unemployment, due to poor economic conditions. Nearly a million job losses were projected for the single quarter - this matches the job losses in the 12 months following the global financial crisis, Fin24 previously reported. Investec had forecasted an unemployment rate of 37.9%.
Government had implemented a nationwide lockdown in March in order to slow the spread of Covid-19. During April, only essential goods and services were operational and economic activity was limited with lockdown restrictions at their highest level. As a result GDP contracted by 51%, on a quarter-on-quarter, annualised basis. Non-annualised, the contraction was 16.4%.
In its September quarterly bulletin, released on Tuesday, the Reserve Bank noted that the lockdown had brought about logistical complications for Stats SA - contributing to the delay of the release of the employment data.
"The number of unemployed South Africans had already increased significantly in the year to the first quarter of 2020 due to a surge in the number of new and re-entrants into the labour market who failed to find employment.
"The official unemployment rate increased to a record high of 30.1% in the first quarter of 2020, reflecting the impact of the economic recession that had already started in the third quarter of 2019," the bulletin read.
Stats SA said that it had to change the mode of collection of data to adapt to Covid-19 safety protocols.
"Given the change in the survey mode of collection and the fact that Q2: 2020 estimates are not based on a full sample, comparisons with previous quarters should be made with caution," Stats SA said.
In an emailed response to questions from Fin24, Stats SA said data is usually collected from April to June. But due to a change in data collection from face-to-face to Computer Assisted Telephone Interviewing, it was delayed for planning and the training of field workers between April and mid-May. The data was collected from 14 May to 30 June 2020.
Stats SA noted that the usual sample size for the survey is 30 000 but not all sampled dwelling units had contact numbers and the data for this survey was collected from 17 345 dwelling units.
This article was updated at 15:00 on 29 September, 2020 to include additional comment from Stats SA.