Times without number in the last couple of decades, politicians and pundits have warned us all that unemployment is a “ticking time bomb”. The figures are horrifying. They were horrifying even before this year’s Covid-19 lockdowns made them even worse.
Nor does the South African Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan issued by Cyril Ramaphosa last week create much confidence that his government is serious about combating joblessness.
On the official definition, which excludes “discouraged” people who have given up looking for work, unemployment rose from 1.99 million in 1994 to 6.66 million last year. If discouraged workers are added in, the rise over that same period is from 3.67 million to 10.23 million. The last of these figures translates into an unemployment rate of 38.5%.
Looking at a shorter period of time, and at only one segment of the jobless millions, the number of black African workers classified as “discouraged” rose from 1.47 million in 2001 to 2.56 million last year.
There is plenty of protest in South Africa, some of it orchestrated into violence. Incidents of public violence of various types have been rising over the past decade, but so far the ticking time bomb has failed to explode. Certainly, the bomb threat doesn’t bother too many members of the ruling elite, or they would not have introduced or threatened to introduce policies that impede labour markets and deter investment.
It is therefore time to inject some different ideas into the debate, to switch away from sounding warnings to unceasingly beating the drum against the sheer cruelty and wickedness of South Africa’s labour market policies. One consequence of these policies is likely to be that a large proportion of domestic servants and others laid off during the lockdown are unlikely to get their jobs back, or to find other jobs.