Mmusi Maimane | Non-workers day – May Day vs MAYDAY

Africa's unemployment rate is 4 times higher than the global average, writes the author.

Africa’s unemployment rate is 4 times higher than the global average, writes the author. Getty Images

The emergency that our economy is facing is our unemployment rate – which is the single greatest threat to the present and future of our country, writes Mmusi Maimane.

May Day on 1 May is internationally recognised as Workers Day, which is a public holiday in South Africa.

Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! This is an emergency procedure word used internationally as a distress signal in voice-procedure radio communications. There should be no doubt from the latest employment data that there is a crisis in our labour sector. Our economy is screaming mayday! Our people are screaming mayday! However, there is no one who seems to be listening with the intention to save those who are at risk of economic peril.

The emergency that our economy is facing is our unemployment rate – which is the single greatest threat to the present and future of our country. Our catastrophic unemployment rate contributes to numerous social ills and leads to the tensions in townships between locals and African migrants and refugees.

Our country has a rich history of collective and organised labour, which more often than not intersected with, and played a crucial role in, the struggle against apartheid.

Cosatu on the ANC’s right hand

The advent of democracy saw labour rights recognised, entrenched and protected in section 23 of our Constitution. Even today, South Africa’s largest trade union, Cosatu, sits at the “right hand” of the ANC in the tripartite alliance, strongly influencing policy and governance and representing millions of workers.

Worker Unions’ role has largely been to protect workers, to advocate for higher wages and to act as a bulwark against excessive corporate power. This model has been largely successful for as long as human capital is required. This is changing, however.

Worker rights are at risk when the government does not take steps to protect the future of that work. There are developments in technology which will render some jobs obsolete. These are jobs in the international labour organisation skill level one and two. These are jobs which typically have lower education and training prerequisites in order to perform.

For instance, consider that the world’s richest man Elon Musk and Tesla are changing the way the transportation industry will function. In the not too distant future, there will be autonomous cars and trucks. These developments will reduce reliance on drivers in many companies. There are advancements in automation that are changing the nature of manufacturing and rendering certain jobs obsolete. This government pays lip service towards retraining workers for the jobs of the future, but our overall skills ranking in the global competitiveness index shows that we have not made any significant progress for a very long time.

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This government also is failing to do its part to reduce the cost of living and as a result many workers are struggling to make ends meet. The government has made life expensive in the country as a result of corruption and failure to deliver services. This has forced workers to pay tax and seek healthcare, safety and education solutions from the private sector. The citizens of this country have had to find alternative sources of power, and use money they did not plan to spend as a result of constant power outages.

The failures of the state are draining the income of workers who want a government that respects and values its citizens and that will aim to reduce the cost of living. This type of government would allow its citizens to have more disposable income to support their families, to spend in the market and thus boost the economy.

More people are unemployed in the national labour force than there are people who are meaningfully employed. This effectively makes workers day national unemployment day, national non-workers day.

Africa’s unemployment rate four times higher than the global average 

On reflecting on this workers day we must focus on SA’s unemployment crisis.

The Department of Higher Education and Training’s (DHET) own research shows that approximately 17 million people in South Africa between the ages of 15-60 were not in employment, education or training in the latter part of 2020, and more than half were below the age of 35.

Approximately half of the children will complete their school education and less than five out of every 100 children will pass maths in matric with a grade of 50% or higher, which makes it very unlikely that they’ll ever get a great job.

Africa’s unemployment rate is four times higher than the global average. Among younger people the unemployment rate is approaching 70%. If you lined all South Africa’s unemployed up in a queue spaced two feet apart they form a line from Cape Town to Cairo.

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There are many actions that a government can take with the will and vision to improve the lives of those with jobs and those who are seeking jobs. Firstly there is a need to have retraining and re-skilling programs that are readily accessible to those in formal employment. Secondly there is a need to provide funding for job seekers to enable them to check their emails, attend in-person interviews, to print out their documents among other costs. Finally there is a need for the government to get out of the way of workers by providing quality and reliable services and infrastructure. 

In light of the manner in which job seekers have been failed and in light of how their power is limited if they operate individually to challenge ills identified in the labour market it is therefore of great significance that people are coming together to form a new unemployment union which will be launched in the coming weeks. This union will seek to represent the interests of the jobless exclusively.