The world is a frightening and unfriendly place for people who are unskilled and unemployed. How are they to feed, clothe and shelter themselves and their children when they have few or no qualifications for a job and no means to acquire a trade? This is the stark reality for a great many South Africans today. At least eleven million people, and possibly more than twelve million, are currently without work and have little hope of obtaining any. It is a problem of vast proportions for the government and for our society at large.
South Africa’s labour laws are exacerbating this unemployment crisis. Written with the intention of protecting workers, they provide a high level of job security to those in employment and make favourable working conditions obligatory. Employers who do not meet the statutory requirements are subject to onerous penalties. However, a consequence of the laws is that they prohibit unemployed people from selling their labour on less favourable terms than the law prescribes, but which are nevertheless acceptable to them. This effectively deprives them of their only means of climbing on to the first rung of the employment ladder. The consequence in South Africa, is massive unemployment. The highest in the world for young people between the ages of 15 and 24 years, according to the ILO.
Many jobless people are thus condemned to living on welfare grants or relying on the charity of friends and family. While this may provide some measure of relief from the physical consequences of poverty, it does incalculable damage to the self-esteem of the unemployed and leads to feelings of hopelessness and desperation.
What is to be done?
When the first version of this booklet was published in 2003 there were reported to be 5 million unemployed people in the country. That figure, prior to the Covid-19 lockdown, had grown to 10.5 million. It is now estimated to be above 13 million. If drastic steps are not taken without delay to mitigate the situation, chaos is likely to result. The usual mitigating steps taken by governments, such as welfare payments and government make-work jobs will not resolve the situation. Decisive action now needs to be taken to get people working, earning, learning skills, and supporting their families. Above all, the steps taken must offer hope of economic betterment to the millions of South Africans who are jobless and unskilled. The purpose of this paper is to suggest a way in which this can be done.
The solution proposed here would be effective, easy to implement and politically ‘saleable’. It would help those who need help – the unemployed – without affecting the statutory rights of the employed. And it would result in increased economic growth that would benefit all South Africans.