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No jobs and little hope daunt South Africa vote

By AFP

May 23, 2024 10:52 AM


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Wearing a yellow garbage collector's hi-viz vest, political science graduate Tumelo Georgy joined a small protest outside the headquarters of a Johannesburg waste management firm.

Having worked under a short-term contract for a few months, he missed out on a recent hiring round and is now, once again, among the millions of South Africans out of a job.

"It's very sad," the 39-year-old said. "That's why we are having criminals, because people have studied and are hungry."

South Africa's unemployment rate -- one of the highest in the world -- is a hot political issue ahead of general elections next week, with ubiquitous campaign posters promising a turnaround.

"A job in every home," reads the slogan of Bosa, a new liberal party. "Land and jobs now," cry the ads of the leftist Economic Freedom Fighters.

At 32.9 percent, the jobless rate is close to a record high. Among young people it is even higher, at 45.5 percent.

Frustrated, many voters are planning to ditch the long-ruling African National Congress (ANC) and on May 29, the party is expected to lose its outright parliamentary majority for the first time since 1994.

It might be forced to find coalition partners to remain in power.

"The ANC has failed," said Fikile Ndaba, a 49-year-old mother-of-three from Diepkloof, a district of the historic township of Soweto.

She has been trying to find a job for years.

Having voted ANC at every previous election, she is now unsure whether to vote at all, she said.

"I put my CV everywhere, cafes, shops, creches. No one called."

- 'Spiral of inequality' -

The problem has deep roots and no quick fixes, economists say.

Most black people received subpar education during apartheid and were ill equipped to find work when it ended, according to Dieter von Fintel of Stellenbosch University.

In the intervening decades, economic growth has been too slow to absorb a growing labour supply.

Unemployment was 20 percent in 2008, when the country's population was just under 50 million. Today, South Africa has 62 million people.

Bogged down by power cuts, infrastructure breakdowns and corruption concerns, GDP was up a meagre 0.6 percent in 2023.

Gaps in education have persisted.

South Africa has excellent but pricey private schools. Understaffed and under-resourced public ones often provide a poor service.

Eight out of 10 schoolchildren aged nine or 10 struggle to understand what they read, according to a study published last year.

Pupils often fail to qualify for high-demand university degrees, such as engineering and finance, said von Fintel.

Social mobility and interaction among different racial groups have increased over the past 30 years.

But South Africa remains the world's most unequal society, according to the World Bank, and many lack connections that could help them land a job.

"It's a spiral of inequality," said Imraan Valodia, a professor of economics at the University of the Witwatersrand.

"If you're born to a family living in a rural area you're going to go to an under-resourced school and if you do go to university, you are probably going to go to a university that is not good and then you're not going to find work," he said.

- 'Ticking time bomb' -

Government action to address the crisis has yielded limited results.

Black economic empowerment policies encouraging firms to increase black ownership, employment and procurement have largely benefited only a small group of well-connected people, said von Fintel.

The lack of prospects has fuelled anti-foreigner sentiment.

Despite its troubles, Africa's most industrialised nation remains a magnet for migrants from across the continent.

"There's already work, you must just take out and remove the foreigners that are there," said Joseph Mhlaba, a 58-year-old unemployed Soweto resident, who supports the xenophobic vigilante group Operation Dudula.

A United Nations report in 2022 described the high unemployment rate as "a ticking time bomb".

More than 25 million South Africans currently rely on social grants to get by.

Ofentse, a 26-year-old Soweto unemployed resident, who preferred only to give her first name, said she receives 500 rand ($27) a month -- something that makes her feel "relaxed" about the need to find work.

"This government does a reasonable job of taxing people who have high incomes and then transferring those incomes to poor people and that keeps society from blowing up," said Valodia.

But there are concerns around its capacity to sustain that amid low growth and high debt, he added.

"What we need is a sustained period of growth that is going to shift the benefits of growth to those who are marginalised. That's not something we've had in the past."


AFP


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