/ 8 November 2023

2022 census: Growing concerns over South Africa’s development agenda

Unemployment (1)

The 2022 census report paints a gloomy picture of the development of post-apartheid South Africa. 

This is notwithstanding the issue of undercounting — 30% of homes and 31% of individuals were not part of the overall data sample. This suggests that a significant number of South Africans and households were not reached due to myriad issues. Nevertheless, census data is essential for research analysis, forecasting and policymaking. 

If the findings are any indication, South Africa has made some progress towards its development goals — but there is still a long way to go.

Unemployment and women empowerment

According to the census, women headed more than 42.2% of all South African households. Households are essentially defined as homes that share resources. 

Therefore, for a better understanding of the implications of 42.2% of all households being headed by women, the figure must be juxtaposed against the number of employed women in South Africa.  

The labour force participation rate for women was 54.3% in the second quarter of 2023, while the rate for men was 64.9%, a difference of 10,6 percentage points, according to the Quarterly Labour Force Survey produced by StatsSA. 

Participation in the labour force does not equate to employment, though, and the unemployment rate for women remains high at 35.7%. In other words, 35.7% of those who want to work cannot find work but are actively looking for it. 

There are others who are counted as “discouraged” — women who are counted as part of the labour force but have given up looking for work, so the true unemployment figure could be even higher. 

Furthermore, the International Labour Organisation notes that “when women are employed, they are more likely to work in low-paying jobs in vulnerable conditions”.  

As far back as 2011, the National Planning Commission, whose deputy chairperson was Cyril Ramaphosa, now president, identified that young people and women are excluded from opportunities that would empower them to live the lives they would like. Even then, women comprised the largest percentage of poor individuals in South Africa. 

Accordingly, the National Development Plan (NDP) envisioned the upliftment of women in society, with a focus on education, employment and overall economic participation. 

Twelve years later, women’s prospects have not improved, as outlined above. This gloomy picture worsens when considering the NDP’s vision of reducing total unemployment to 6% by 2030. According to the Quarterly Labour Force Survey, South Africa’s unemployment rate had decreased by 0.3% in the second quarter of 2023. 

In the expanded definition of unemployment, the percentage of unemployed South Africans is 42.1%, with the official (narrow) percentage also dropping by 0.3% to a total of 32,6%. This is just seven years away from what should be the achievement of the NDP’s Vision 2030. 

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Where is the employment social compact?

The latest census should remind South Africa’s social partners — the government, organised labour, organised business and community organisations, as represented in the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) — to finalise the social compact Ramaphosa announced in his 2022 State of the Nation Address. This would mark an attempt by the government and its social partners to formulate a comprehensive plan to address issues of slow to zero economic growth and rising unemployment.

The goal of bringing South Africa’s unemployment rate down to about 6% by 2030 can only be accomplished with co-ordinated efforts and shared commitment from the public and commercial sectors, labour unions and communities. 

The social partners represented in Nedlac play a significant role in promoting the legislative and policy proposals that would increase economic growth, develop employment opportunities and create a healthy labour market. 

As an example, in 2020, minister Pravin Gordhan signed an Eskom social compact. What appears to be a significant reduction in load-shedding, and an increase in the electricity availability factor, can be at least partly attributed to the Eskom compact, along with the strides that have been made by the recently appointed electricity minister Kgosientso Ramokgopa. 

This reference is made to demonstrate that social compacts have always been, and continue to be, effective in South Africa. Therefore, recognising social partners’ collective responsibility is necessary for tackling South Africa’s socio-economic problems.

Education remains critical for skills development and wider economic participation

In 2011, the NDP also noted that the majority of black children receive subpar education, if any at all — particularly in higher education and training. This has kept many South Africans from being able to find work in an already challenged economy. 

In addition, it limits the potential viability of businesses and lowers the earning potential and career mobility of those individuals who do manage to find employment. 

The 2022 Census report states that: “Almost one-third (31,8%) of individuals aged five years and older attended some kind of educational institution. Nationally, 86.8% of these individuals attended primary or secondary schools, while a further 5.8% attended tertiary institutions. Only 2,1% of individuals attended Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges.”

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The numbers presented by the census report show that while there might be a higher intake of learners at the level of early childhood development and basic education, the numbers drop significantly when it comes to higher education and training enrolments and, ultimately, graduations. 

While the concerns about higher education are significant, it is also worth noting that what was highlighted by the NDP Vision 2030 concerning black children and higher education might be progressing in the right direction. In this regard, the census report highlights that, in 2022, black African students made up 76.4% of all students, which marks an overall increase from 60.2% in 2002. 

While the above is appreciated, the overall number of students remains low due to the gradual falling off of children’s educational careers from early childhood development to high school. Ultimately, this contributes to the lack of an inclusive, skilled and vibrant labour force in the country. 

The government needs to emphasise basic education, understand the trends that lead to pupils dropping out at the lower education levels, invest more resources in dealing with this problem and ensure that more students enrol in higher education and training. 

Addressing the problems at the level of basic education ought to be accompanied by a deliberate skills revolution that will reconfigure the higher education and training sector. 

Understanding the potential contribution of TVET institutions as providers of skilled workers is necessary in this regard. This would require making them skills-driven institutions of choice, rather than merely for taking on students rejected by universities. 

This must be combined with actively creating a labour-absorbing economy and enhancing proper governance mechanisms to help prevent and deal with the corruption that negatively impacts the poor and limits their access to education and training, ultimately negatively affecting the fabric of the labour force and the cohesion between key social partners.

Mxolisi Zondo is a public policy researcher at Good Governance Africa.