Analysis & Profiles 6.6.2017 07:41 am

Quarterly labour force figures paint a grim picture

Unemployment file picture.

Unemployment file picture.

The reality and facts are awful, and we must face them.

Not so long ago this columnist said ‘youth unemployment is a national crisis’. That crisis has taken a turn for the worse. Last week’s quarterly labour force survey (QLFS) was devastating. The reality is grim and the numbers highlight the seriousness of the crisis we’re in.

  • At 52%, youth unemployment is now higher than the national average of 27%;
  • We’re facing the highest unemployment rate since September 2003;
  • 6.2 million people are unemployed;
  • 14.3 million people are economically inactive.

Unfortunately, these unemployment statistics do not show the full picture. We know how the average working class salary supports an extended family, meaning that more people are directly affected when the 433 000 people mentioned in the QLFS join the ranks of the unemployed. A dark cloud has covered whatever hope many had for this country. Perhaps even more ominous than these numbers is the waning patience of the ordinary people who have been waiting to taste the ‘better life for all’ that democratic government has promised for over two decades – that’s a lifetime for our youth.

These are the realities, the facts and numbers of the labour market; they’re not new and have always been out in the open. The question now is whether the ruling party and the government will stiffen their lips and face up to these facts, or continue blankly ignoring this crisis we are facing.

In putting self before service, the ANC has made it perfectly clear that it is not keen on more lectures about ‘putting the country first’, the downstream impact on the economy of its recklessness as the ruling party, or the fact that it is robbing this young nation of its future. The party’s nonchalant disregard – for, among others, the visible face of poverty that’s often female and black, the despondent and jaded unemployed youth and the rampaging violence against women – speak of a ruling party devoid of a sense of serving the people. With such blatant evidence of apathy, no wonder they have no conscience when corruption tempts them.

Perhaps more infuriating about this ANC as the ruling party, is its inability to – for lack of a better saying – ‘give a f***k’ in the face of national matters that require leaders to stand up and assure the nation with a ‘We’ve got this covered and are doing everything to fix things’ kind of message. This is not an argument against the ANC per se, but against its continuing failure as the party governing this country. The economic crisis (slow if not little growth, structural challenges and political risk) rumbles on from all corners of the country, besides the obvious external factors that many nations can do very little about. At the heart of South Africa’s crisis lie political and policy uncertainties that have generated substantially more downside risk now than they have in previous years.

Evidence of policy uncertainty can be seen in the unsuccessful efforts of the New Growth Path (NGP) and the much lauded but never implemented National Development Plan (NDP). All this points to an administration that jumps from one policy tool to another with the hope of landing on the ‘one’ that might work. Perhaps the most significant illustration of such a policy uncertainty is one that involves the mining industry. The indecision and changes of the state on the Minerals and Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPRDA) and Mining Charter reinforces the view that under the current administration pragmatism has given way to populism.

The severity of the country’s failing growth is greatly deepened by the profound lack of vision for the future. Political leaders and policymakers have failed to learn the lessons of the long Japanese stagnation of the 1990s and the SA 2008-09 financial crisis. Current responses are insufficient and in some cases even counterproductive. Evidence of the latter can be seen in the nine-point plan’s lack of ‘how to’ approach. It talks of “Moderating work place conflict”, but in what way? We already have the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) and the Labour Court for any labour-related conflict.

We have leaders and politicians who have created an environment that has turned the economy into a cannibal that feeds on its people. It devours and changes the fate of millions of people by subjecting them to poverty, inequality and unemployment, making the future more uncertain and leading this young democracy down a dangerous path where they are vulnerable to human trafficking and transactional sex.

I’ve always argued to my economist friends that politics will have the upper hand on economics because multiple dynamic political variables play such a large role in economic outcomes, the future of a market’s economic performance and business environment. I therefore suggest a claiming back of this government of the people from the political elites whose real motives are self-enrichment and selling the country to whoever flavours their curry.

There is a compelling case for business leaders to publicly and privately advocate for government policies and regulations that will foster positive economic growth and social outcomes in the markets in which they operate. There’s a catch. Business must also create a persuasive counter-narrative to a rightfully pervasive fear of exploitation and mistrust arguments from the working class that appeals to populist sentiments from opportunistic leaders. And which often gives rise to empty slogans disguised as radical action towards changing the economy ‘for the people’.

Unless we all come together to counter factors that are holding back growth in this economy, until we implement targeted investments and put in place sound regulations to address rising tides of unemployment, rampant corruption, state looting, the lack of jobs and the poor education outcomes, we are not going to dramatically improve our medium-term growth outlook. Our unemployment crisis alone is reason enough to reboot our economy and get rid of those bringing political risk by putting in place leaders with a vision for South Africa beyond their bloated political stomach.

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