Facing the unemployment crisis…

By Khaya Sithole

The third South African jobs summit finally got underway this week in Midrand, Johannesburg. The long-awaited summit forms part of the package of promises made by Cyril Ramaphosa in his maiden State of the Nation Address in February.

Back then, he was a president elevated to the top job on the back of the Nasrec outcomes together with an intense civil war within the ANC that ended with the resignation of Jacob Zuma. At that stage, the country was already in the suffocating embrace of a stagnant economy, an unemployment crisis, widening inequality and deepening poverty. And there was also the small matter of state capture.

Facing the unemployment crisis… #JobSummit

Since then, things have taken a turn for the worse.

The inevitable consequence of the years of non-existent growth – a country unable to generate enough revenues to sustain itself – lead to the state having to raise the VAT rate. This – is the most regressive option – indicated that all other avenues had been exhausted.

Then the world events – particularly the oil price – conspired with a weak exchange rate to deliver fuel prices that are at record levels, and getting higher each month. But perhaps more tragically, the unemployment crisis has reached a point of tragedy. More than any other indicator, the unemployment statistics indicate the depth of the country’s state of affairs.

Whilst poverty and inequality are far less elusive to capture and articulate, unemployment numbers provide the cold brutality of absolutism. What they fail to capture is the social, emotional and psychological cost of being unable to access an opportunity to work. The silent brutality of the state of anxiety that – over time – leads to an ever-increasing sense of anxiety and an ever-diminishing sense of purpose.

For young people whose education outcomes have been compromised by years of policy inconsistency and inadequate planning, the reality is even more dire as quite frankly, the mere passage of time makes their chance of ever securing employment ever more elusive. The arrival of such a summit then ignites a sense of hope and optimism not for its expected outcomes but primarily because it signifies an acknowledgment of the crisis. But another lesser-known problem occurs at the Summit itself.

Over the 2 days in which the summit will be held, the most visible participants will be the politicians, the policymakers and their associates putting ideas forward. Less visible, however, will be the very people whose plight the summit ought to assist. The young, predominantly black people whose role in the summit will be peripheral and central in equal measure. Peripheral in the sense that their most hectic work occurs within the gaps in conversations, within the cracks in debates.

During the dinners, the tea breaks and the luncheons where – inevitably – the glare of the media will shift away from the summit to catch up on other issues of the day. In essence, the country itself will watch the politicians, the policymakers and their ilk as they get beamed on screens across the nation.


And then ironically – when the souls whose experience of the crisis is personal, pervasive and prevalent are busy exhibiting the skills that they possess – they will become invisible to the rest of us. But of course, their invisibility will be fleeting. Simply because wherever you turn in South Africa the exhibit of the crisis is there.

Visible, tangible, palpable and undeniable. In preparing this piece, I naturally interrogate the statistics and the reports that seek to articulate it all. This could have been all about that.

And yet – when one has to be honest about this, the constant churning out of statistics and the continuous dissection means very little to the human beings that bear the brunt of this crisis. The abstract references and inferences to wage rigidity, policy uncertainty, and industrial revolutions; mean very little to a human being trying to work out how to buy a loaf of bread.

The human cost of the unemployment crisis; the role of unemployment in dismantling an already fragile fabric of our society; its centrality in deepening poverty and inequality; is the essence of what we face. At the heart of it all, when one is unemployed the distinction between unemployment rates, absorption rates is of no consequence. The story is far more personal, far more painful.

For 2 days, the individuals working at the jobs summit get to enjoy some proximity to the world of employment. A proximity that is as fleeting as it is insecure.

Through all the hyperbole and promises of the summit, one can only hope that those tasked with the job of creating solutions to the crisis, will take a moment during the lunch break to look into the eyes of that temporary waitron and security guard and find out what it means to be an actual victim of the unemployment crisis.

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