The ANC is promising the people a mere 300,000 low-wage jobs over five years, and they deserve so much better than that.

South Africa is a country facing a large and diverse set of existential problems.

The nation’s public finances are in a deep, structural crisis of sustainability. Among the state-owned companies, it’s hard to decide which is scarier — that Transnet may become the next Eskom, or that Eskom might become the next Prasa. Meanwhile, the government spent three years unsuccessfully trying to sell SAA for the price of a large cappuccino.

Corruption is rampant and goes unpunished, while the police don’t even have a habitable building for their headquarters. Parliament burned down not too long ago, as did KwaZulu-Natal.

This is a striking list of some of our crises. But the deepest and most fundamental of them, and the one that drives most of our pathologies, is unemployment. There is no country in the world in which a smaller proportion of the total population is engaged in income-generating work than South Africa.

The brutal reality is that the number of people employed in South Africa has grown by 2.3-million since 2008, while the number of working-age South Africans has increased by 9.5-million. Speaking broadly, the economy has generated less than one new job for every four entrants to the labour market in the past 15 years.

In contemplating the sheer horror of this performance, we should not forget that the South Africa of 2008 wasn’t a jobs-rich paradise: even then, only 45% of all working-age adults had jobs, compared with a global norm of more like 60%. The figure now is closer to 40%, implying that we are about 8-million jobs shy of the global standard.

South Africa needs a government with a sense of crisis and urgency, and a new approach designed to unlock the full potential of the private sector, attract investment, and make it easier to hire unskilled work seekers who make up the vast majority of the unemployed

And the 8-million jobs needed increases by about 400,000 each year as the size of the working-age population expands. It’s worth holding these numbers in your head when you consider what the ruling party is promising voters in its election manifesto: 3.5-million “work opportunities”, 2.5-million of which are in expanded public works programme (EPWP) projects or similar schemes, and the remainder provided to young people in townships and rural areas to help them start or sustain micro businesses.

In government-speak, “work opportunities” are what are provided by EPWPs (which include the president’s employment stimulus), and they consist of temporary, sometimes part-time, jobs that often pay less than the national minimum wage.

Formally speaking, these are jobs. But they are temporary ones. How temporary? Well, the best available evidence suggests it takes about 2.8 “work opportunities” to create the equivalent of one year of full-time employment.

What the ANC is promising in its manifesto, then, is that its policies will create the equivalent of fewer than 1.3 million years of work over the next five years. That is the equivalent of the contribution that would be made by 250,000 full-time jobs over five years, or 300,000 jobs if we allow that some of them are part-time.

In the context of the need — which is more like 10-million jobs if we want to get to a 60% employment rate by 2030 — the stunning inadequacy of this promise is, frankly, insulting. Especially if you consider that most of these “work opportunities” are simply a continuation of existing programmes and therefore not net new jobs.

Consider the fact that last year more than 700,000 young people wrote matric. In essence, the ANC is committing to create jobs for considerably fewer than half of them. And there will be no such jobs for anyone who matriculates between now and 2028.

These are primarily government-funded jobs, which have long been the focus of the government’s approach to job-creation. The manifesto does talk about tackling economic roadblocks in the country (for which the government is largely responsible), but there is no sense of urgency — no conviction that a faster-growing, more job-intensive economy is the only way we can ever deal with our jobs catastrophe. It all comes across as business as usual.

The ANC’s jobs promise is totally inadequate, revealing an astonishing lack of ambition.

What is worse, if one reads what the president has said about jobs and the economy in recent months, it becomes evident that neither he nor his party has any real vision or plan. It’s almost as if they have given up.

It’s not that the president has no ideas — it’s just that he has so many ideas that it’s impossible to figure out what he thinks drives job-creation.

One day he’s talking about public transport, and the next he’s talking about education. He has lists of initiatives to support entrepreneurs, to build publicly owned commercial property, to strengthen BEE rules, to push for more spending on infrastructure, to facilitate “smart cities” or free-trade zones in Africa, to localise manufacturing, to take advantage of the fourth industrial revolution, and to turn mining into a sunrise industry.

If the president attended a meeting of the South African Society of Fly Fishermen, his next speech would include proposals to offer grants to young people so they might learn how to tie flies.

It’s not that every one of these ideas is bad. Some may even be good. The problem is that nothing coheres — there is no sense of how jobs are created in a functional economy, no theory of change or economic reform that would shape government priorities. It’s a smorgasbord of possibilities designed to create the appearance of action.

These ideas add up to nothing. That, ultimately, is how a promise to create a meagre number of predominantly government-funded semi-jobs becomes the centrepiece of the ANC’s election manifesto.

Perhaps part of the reason his promises are so negligible is because the economy is so wrecked by maladministration, corruption and incompetence that it must be hard for the ANC to see how things could ever get better under their management.

Is there a better option? Yes.

Given the depth of the polycrisis, there is no set of policy proposals that would generate the millions of jobs we need overnight. But, based on historical relationships, we’d estimate that average economic growth of 4% would create 400,000 net new jobs a year — real jobs, not “work opportunities” funded by an increasingly bankrupt state.

Achieving this depends on South Africa having a government that wants to serve the national interest, appoints competent leaders, and is hard-working, honest and committed to economic growth, rather than to empowering its friends and cronies. South Africa needs a government with a sense of crisis and urgency, and a new approach designed to unlock the full potential of the private sector, attract investment, and make it easier to hire unskilled work seekers who make up the vast majority of the unemployed.

Many of the policy goals such a government would implement would be similar to much of what the ANC claims it is committed to doing: fixing the energy system, reforming the logistics sector, investing in public infrastructure, and improving education. The difference between claiming to be pursuing these things and actually delivering them is the difference between words and deeds.

The president’s offer to the electorate must be called out for what it is. The centrepiece of the ruling party’s promise to the electorate, priority number one in its manifesto, is the paltry equivalent of 300,000 low-wage jobs over five years.

South Africa deserves better.

Bernstein is the executive director of the Centre for Development and Enterprise.
This article was published on Sunday Times