The green economy can create decent jobs

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation address called on South Africans “to forge a new consensus” and to work together “to revitalise the economy”. He spoke of the deep structural problems and the need “to enable businesses to grow and create jobs alongside expanded public employment and social protection”. 

This echoes the commitments made in the 2011 Green Economy Accord, which include promoting economic development, creating job opportunities — especially for young people — and forming a “social compact on the transition”. 

But the reality has been different from the rhetoric and provides lessons going forward. 

The current scenario is grim. South Africa has among the highest rates of inequality and unemployment globally. The bottom 40% of the population holds just 7% of income compared to 16% in other emerging markets, and the bottom 60% of households depend on social grants.  In the third quarter of 2021, the unemployment rate was 34.9% and as high as 46.6% using the expanded definition of unemployment, which includes discouraged job seekers.  

This begs the question: how can the green economy provide a solution? 

The green economy refers to two interlinked developmental outcomes: growing the green industry sector and shifting towards cleaner industries and sectors across the economy as a whole.  A transition to greener economies offers a solution to South Africa’s structural socioeconomic problems, especially in the natural resource management, agriculture, transport and energy sectors. 

Between 2004 and 2017, the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) South Africa created almost a million work opportunities, of which 13% were “green jobs”. But these green jobs are often far from being decent jobs, because they do not pay as well as jobs in the coal industry, which has led to a reluctance from trade unions to embrace the green economy. 

The country can’t create green jobs in provinces such as Limpopo and Mpumalanga, where coal mines will close and put 90 000 workers at risk. In cities such as Emalahleni, residents are at the centre of this conversation, because the local economy is reliant on coal. Residents also deal with environmental and health problems. The situation is exacerbated by unemployment, retrenchments and limited opportunities for economic participation for youth, many of whom have trained in technical and vocational education and training colleges to participate in the coal sector. 

The point I’m making here is that a green transition is bound to affect not only jobs but also the education and skills development ecosystem. As Eskom’s just energy transition office states, a just transition refers to “the gradual movement towards lower carbon technologies” without having a negative effect on “society, jobs and livelihoods”.  

For the past 15 years, through the jointly hosted EPWP reference group, the South African Cities Network (SACN) and the department of public works have been researching and reporting on progress made and innovations in the EPWP. The 2019-20 EPWP report stated that “not enough attention [is being] paid to developing projects that provide jobs and training simultaneously”.  

Although concerns are often raised about an insufficient budget for skills development, some cities have been able to find a balance. Among the SACN’s network of cities, the City of Ekurhuleni remains a leader in reported training and represents a considerable proportion (65%) of the total person-years of training across the nine cities. It has provided training opportunities through the Vuk’uphile project (construction skills and skills on running a construction company) and the Plumbers Training project (plumbing skills, NQF level three qualification). The aim is to further improve training opportunities through additional financial assistance and greater collaboration with the private sector. 

The City of Cape Town has offered unemployed graduates training in the environment/green economy sector, resulting in some participants being employed as technical support in the water and sanitation, and transport departments. These projects highlight how the EPWP can be leveraged to offer a meaningful long-term effect  to its beneficiaries. 

As we contemplate the benefits that a greener economy and green jobs might offer, prioritising long-term wellbeing is critical. For households in mining towns such as Emalahleni, this means providing more secure jobs that pay enough to ensure household wellbeing and gradual upward mobility. 

As South Africa sits with the twin perils of inequality and unemployment, a green transition provides the opportunity to interrogate the quality of jobs created and how all of society might leverage the green economy to reduce unemployment and narrow inequality.

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Kgomotso Tolamo
Kgomotso Tolamo is a programme manager for Productive Cities, a project of the South African Cities Network that aims to boost cities’ economic competitiveness by focusing on economic growth, job creation and infrastructure investment

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