Unemployment in SA: No lifeboats for the poor as the Titanic sinks

Dr Trevor Ngwane is the director of the Centre for Sociological Research and Practice, at the University of Johannesburg. He recently penned an opinion article first published by IOL on September 4, 2021.

Why is South Africa always Number One? Because it excels in tournaments no country ever wants to win. The most unequal society in the world. The rape capital of the world. The leader in corporate criminality in the world. And now, the highest rate of unemployment in the world. ‘The path of least resistance is the path of the loser,’ wrote H.G. Wells.

Could it be that South Africa is cursed with a political and economic elite that lacks vigour, commitment, and determination in addressing the country’s problems?

You might start thinking that way if you are one of 12 million unemployed workers that constitute 44,4% of the total labour force (expanded definition). You might have heard various government officials and captains of industry talking about their programmes for job creation and making bombastic promises. But now, you hear that more people are unemployed than ever before, more than in any other country in the world. Your heart sinks, you feel butterflies in your stomach, hope vanishes, you face a bleak future.

Unemployment is an attack on the working class and the poor. Under capitalism, the main source of income for workers is the sale of their labour. Workers must endure intolerable levels of hardship, pain, and suffering when a large section of their class cannot find employment. Crime on the street, the breakdown of the social fabric in the community. The home becomes unhealthy, unsafe, not adequately serviced, and another site for gender-based violence. This is the story of everyday working-class life in which nothing is fine, and everything is a problem.

The working class has done nothing to deserve this hardship. These attacks on the working class are an everyday reality that is shaped and sharpened by a rolling capitalist crisis. Historically, it began with land dispossession, the destruction of indigenous livelihoods and the proletarianisation of the millions.

Hunters, pastoralists, and tillers of the land were turned into wage labourers. Force facilitated the primitive accumulation of capital. Today, the attacks of everyday life come from the forces protecting past accumulation and those pursuing accelerated primitive accumulation of today.

As much as white monopoly capital and the aspirant black bourgeoisie compete and sometimes fight each other, they are united in their need to control and exploit the working class. Both relish their power to hire and fire. They habitually shift the burden of the problems of their system onto the working class.

Their preferred response to squeezes on profits is to cut wages, reduce benefits, retrench, shut down factories, etc. They use unemployment as a weapon to force workers to accept starvation wages and poor working conditions. In fact, the capitalist system requires a greater or lesser number of unemployed workers if it is to function profitably. The fluctuations of the business cycle require surplus labour.

White monopoly capital and the aspirant black bourgeoisie are equally guilty in the plunder of resources of the public sector at the expense of jobs, wages, and services. This happens when public funds are distributed to finance capital through the massive and increasing burden of debt interest servicing. The redistribution of the wealth of the public sector into private hands through tenders, outsourcing, consultancies, etc.

With national liberation, the aspirant black bourgeoisie rallying around the ANC government chose the line of least resistance. They threw in their lot with monopoly capital rather than challenge its power.

Instead of changing policies in favour of the masses, their changes left the racialised, gendered, and spatialised socio-economic patterns of colonial and apartheid capitalism largely untransformed. Hence, the highest levels of unemployment, and lowest wages, are found among young African women who live in the villages, townships, and settlements of South Africa. The lowest rates of unemployment, and the highest wages, are found among white men and women.

The solutions emanating from the public debate on unemployment tend to fall flat because they do not name the beast. The big conglomerates that amassed their riches under apartheid’s repressive and racist labour laws continue to rule the roost.

They focus on core sectors the better to entrench and enhance their apartheid-derived advantages using strategies such as vertical integration whereby a conglomerate owns the flour mill, the bakery, and the supermarket where the bread is sold. If you are a small business hawking bread, you find yourself competing with your supplier. Job creation programmes that focus on small businesses and the informal sector must confront and challenge the power of monopoly capital.

South Africa, more than any other country in the world, is unlikely to create jobs in the foreseeable future. A peripheral middle-income economy at the mercy of a turbulent and crisis-ridden global capitalist system, it is further cursed with a feckless, faint-hearted, and unimaginative leadership. The South African ship is sinking.

The Titanic is going down, and the first-class passengers are hoarding the lifeboats for themselves. As the unemployed flay helplessly in the water, the bosun, Enoch Godongwana, the new finance minister, barks out orders that not even the rickety, inflatable raft called the Basic Income Grant should be thrown to those who are drowning.

The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

Trevor Ngwane
Dr Trevor Ngwane


’South Africa, more than any other country in the world, is unlikely to create jobs in the foreseeable future. The Titanic is going down, and the first-class passengers are hoarding the lifeboats for themselves.’’

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