Job growth: Not all is rosy

South Africa’s recent upbeat assessment of job growth is not a true reflection of trends in the country’s workforce, say critics who contend that gaps in official employment data undercut the government’s rosy claims.

Statistics South Africa reported last week that there were 544 000 new jobs in the year to March and noted a “slightly upward trend” in employment after about 700 000 jobs were lost between 2001 and 2003.

It was seen as good news for Africa’s economic powerhouse and President Thabo Mbeki, who has unveiled a multibillion-rand programme to halve the officially estimated 25% rate of unemployment by 2015.

But critics noted that many of the employment gains occurred in the ailing agricultural sector, making them more likely to be casual labour and not a long-term remedy to the haemorrhaging of jobs seen in the first 12 years since the end of apartheid.

“In the previous survey ... it was reported that 138 000 jobs had been lost in agriculture. A finding that 147 000 new job opportunities were created immediately thereafter, seems extremely suspect,” Lourie Bosman, president of farmers’ union AgriSA, said in a statement.

“It simply makes no economic sense that a sector that shows no growth can create jobs on such a massive scale,” he said, adding that nearly half of the 1,3-million jobs in agriculture were temporary.


The Weekender newspaper cited additional statistics that showed over a quarter of the new jobs were spurred by a state-sponsored agriculture project in the Eastern Cape province—giving some more reason for caution.

“If you’re going to see sustained improvement it needs to be not only isolated to one project ...
for example, a structural improvement in the economy, an improvement in manufacturing,” said Colen Garrow, an economist at Brait.

“To try to show agriculture as labour growth is very dangerous. For one reason, agriculture has always been a swing sector ... It varies according to things we don’t really have control over—weather, crop estimates,” Garrow added.

Officials who might be able to provide additional data could not be reached.

Parking attendants, fruit vendors

Stats SA says it follows global guidelines in compiling its labour data, but the magnitude of unemployment in South Africa means it may not give a full picture of the situation. Revising the definition of “unemployment” also complicates the effort.

Millions of unskilled South Africans rely on the unrecorded informal sector of the economy for their survival, so their labour is not captured by official surveys.

“I think if the informal sector was included ... very basic skills like parking attendants, fruit vendors ... the unemployment rate could be a lot lower,” Garrow said.

“The definitions of these things change so often that they are often distorted and lack credibility,” Garrow added.

Labour federation the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), a political ally of the ruling African National Congress and frequent critic of government policies, highlighted that about 130 000 jobs were lost in the period surveyed.

It said a broader definition of unemployment still puts the jobless rate at a staggering 39%, while new jobs were still comparatively few in manufacturing—a key source of work for millions of unskilled South Africans.

“While any increase is welcome, these figures give no grounds for any complacency. The levels of joblessness and poverty remain grossly excessive,” Cosatu said.—Reuters

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