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Unemployment is a Crisis: We Must Join Together and Act

Unemployment is a Crisis: We Must Join Together and Act

Amandla 65 Editorial | August, 2019

Violence has become so endemic that in parts of the country policing can only be done under the protection of the army.

The jobs crisis is threatening to plunge our country into a social abyss. Globally, progressive forces correctly refer to the threat of global warming as a climate emergency. Now, with an unemployment rate of 38.5%, South Africa can be said to be facing an employment and socio-economic emergency. More than 10 million workers are without work and consequently without a future.

Under the weight of mass unemployment, the social fabric in poor and working class communities are collapsing. Violence has become so endemic that in parts of the country policing can only be done under the protection of the army. And even the army is helpless – last weekend (as we write this editorial, and with the army in occupation of Cape Town townships) there were 47 murders in the metro, including 27 shootings and 13 stabbings. Let’s put that into perspective. In the UK, London is billed as facing a crisis of knife crime – murders by stabbing. It has more than double the population of Cape Town. Yet in the whole of 2018, there was a total of 137 murders. Cape Town managed 47 in a week-end…with the army in occupation!

Everywhere we turn, we are confronted with business applying for retrenchments so they can off-load more workers, cut their costs and preserve their profits. This is becoming so generalised that it is impossible to fight it on a mine-by-mine, plant-by-plant level. Our people are crying out for a response, yet Ramaphosa’s government has forsaken its responsibility to the people that put them in power. They simply regurgitate the neoliberal mantra that it is not government’s responsibility to create work.

Abject failure of government

Government has failed to direct the massive resources of the state to deal with South Africa’s greatest crisis. Instead, it has capitulated to the principal agents of predatory capitalism – the credit agencies, the IMF and the World Bank. The result is an austerity budget that will inflict even greater pain on workers and the poor and destroy even more jobs. 

If we fold our arms and do nothing we will be witnesses to the further smashing of hope of our people. Disillusionment, alienation and desperation will take hold. Xenophobic violence, barbarism and delinquency will devastate our country. 

In 2018, in recognition of the jobs crisis and the social costs of mass unemployment, the government held a Jobs Summit involving its social partners. However, this was a marginal initiative compared to the Investment Conference organised a few weeks later. Whilst it did produce a framework agreement, the agreement that it produced was so misdirected that it was useless.

It failed completely to address economic policy, or the role of government investment in driving a job creation strategy. Instead, it claimed that a major contributor to the high level of joblessness lies in the restrictions on the small business sector. This nonsensical “analysis” was then used as the basis of a framework to address mass unemployment. Instead of looking at what is desperately needed – a plan to directly create jobs in the short-term – it retreats into the mythology of trickle-down economics. Put money into subsidising small business, its argument goes, and some of that will trickle down into jobs as a result.

What is needed now is a flood of jobs, not a trickle. What is needed now is a government which is committed to creating direct jobs, not one which hides behind the neoliberal mantra that the job of government is to create an “enabling environment”. What is needed now is a decisive move away from outdated investment in extractive industries, which the framework agreement even admits are not the basis for significant numbers of jobs.  

A sop to the labour movement

What becomes obvious is that the Jobs Summit was an initiative to placate labour ahead of the more important Investment Conference. Labour had to be placated because there was an election on the way. That’s why, after the Jobs Summit, precisely nothing happened. And if we want to know how seriously the government has taken the outcomes of the Jobs Summit, just listen to the Minister of Labour, Thulas Nxesi, ten months later: “The momentum of the implementation was disturbed by the political period of the elections.” In other words, nothing has happened. Over ten million people unemployed, and nearly a year after the Jobs Summit, and absolutely nothing has been done.

And we know why. Apart from the fact that the Summit was just a sop to the unions, it’s clear that this government has its eyes elsewhere – foreign investment is the panacea for dealing with the jobs crisis. That’s why it is following up on its investment conference, while the admittedly useless commitments of the jobs summit lie unused and rotting.

Cyril Ramaphosa closing the 2018 Presidential Jobs Summit. What becomes obvious is that the Jobs Summit was an initiative to placate labour ahead of the more important Investment Conference.
Investment pledges bring no jobs

It is this wooing of foreign investment that actually stands in the way of dealing with the jobs crisis and mass unemployment. As last year’s investment conference put it: “The Conference will send a clear message to the international community that South Africa is open for business.” “Open for business”. We know what that means: reinforcement of trade and financial liberalisation; conservative macro-economic policies such as austerity, budget deficit reductions, monetarism and the like; deregulation; make South Africa a good place for capital to make profit.

And what has happened has been so predictable. Investors have pledged billions of dollars. And jobs have continued to be shed in their thousands. According to the latest Quarterly Labour Force Survey, 36,000 jobs were lost in the mining sector over the last quarter and 57,000 over the last year. In the same period, the construction sector lost 113,000 jobs and transport 32,000.

Meanwhile, youth unemployment is hovering close to 70% and the unemployment rate for women is 42%. A generation is growing up who have no thought that they will ever have a job. Hardly surprising that gang activity is seen by many as the only way to get an income.

A genuine jobs summit

What is needed is not an investment summit that tries to sell our country to any bidder! We need a genuine Jobs Summit, one that demonstrates where the jobs are, which indicates the economic policies that will ensure sustained decent job creation and points to where the money can be obtained to ensure a wave of decent work. Poor and working class communities, their allies in social movements and trade unions and progressive civil society must come together to develop a programme of action to force government to take the jobs emergency seriously.

An absolutely essential aspect of such a summit will be the development of alternative strategies to address the jobs and unemployment emergency:

  • Immediate strategies and social action plans to address the suffering of the unemployed;
  • Real job creation strategies, especially in the areas of meeting basic needs (housing, community health, early learning, food production;) climate jobs, creating rural livelihoods;
  • Education, training and skills programme for redeveloping artisanal workers;
  • Alternative economic development policies, especially alternative financing plans that underpin a mass job creation strategy.

The most important aspect of such a summit would be the development of a programme of action that can unite the unemployed and vulnerable workers in a series of actions to put pressure on government to immediately address the plight of the unemployed. 

It is time to set aside our differences. Saftu was born out of the expulsion of Numsa from Cosatu. Cosatu has been doing its best to keep Saftu out of Nedlac in order to lessen its influence. So there is no love lost between the federations. But when the future of the vast majority of the working class and the poor is threatened, it is time to put past differences to one side. Not to forget them. Not to stop debating them. But not to allow them to get in the way of joint, united action on an unprecedented scale. A militant but peaceful programme of mass action to deal with the jobs and unemployment emergency destroying our communities and our country.

Such an initiative would need to build on existing movements. It would need to join with the women’s shut down movement and other women’s movements which have been highlighting the plight of unemployed women. It would need to join with initiatives which are dealing with the climate emergency and advocating for a low carbon development strategy.

Ultimately, the success of such an initiative will be the extent to which it involves and amplifies the voices of the vulnerable and the unemployed. The crisis of mass unemployment and the continuing jobs blood bath will not be overcome by alternative policy proposals, although the generation of such alternatives is important. The organisation and mobilisation of poor and working class communities, their social movements and their allies in progressive civil society are going to be of critical importance. We need united mass action.

The views expressed in these articles not necessarily reflect those of the Alternative Information & Development Centre (AIDC) or individual members the Amandla Editorial Collective
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