Parties trot out the same old jobs fantasy

Rhodes>Perspective>2014 Archive

It is election time again — the season to turn up the volume on that popular South African fantasy, the job-creation debate.

The African National Congress has led the pack, promising 6-million job "opportunities" in five years. The Democratic Alliance tells us that "high barriers to entry in the labour market exclude millions of South Africans from accessing employment opportunities". So both insist they can find ways to place millions in jobs.

Nor are they alone — from trade unions to the free-market lobby and between, we are fed a steady diet of remedies that will end joblessness and put the people back to work.

The political parties might cover their backs by promising "job opportunities", not jobs. But, in reality, they know they are adding to the national debate’s obsession — how to achieve that great day when all adults will set off for their job in an office, factory or shop.

This is a costly distraction because, whatever we do, that day will not dawn in decades, if at all. The debate will become real — and useful — only when we stop talking about how to achieve this and begin a serious conversation on what to do to enable people to live productive lives outside formal workplaces.

Throughout the world, it has become almost trite to point out that the days in which most or all people worked in stable, formal jobs are going. In some places, this never happened. In others, it is part of a past that will not return any time soon. There is no reason South Africa should defy that trend — on the contrary, we seem less likely to do this than many others.

Unlike many other countries contending with mass unemployment, we have a formal economy that strongly resembles that of the rich countries: most jobs created are in "knowledge" work. Filling them requires more than a willingness to work — it needs qualifications. Even if we were somehow to fix the mismatch between this postindustrial economy and an often preindustrial education system, it is hard to see how our formal companies will ever create jobs for millions of people.

This is why our jobs debate is so out of touch. Some of us were brought up in families that have held formal jobs for generations. The air-conditioned workplace seems to be the "natural" economic environment, anything else a cheap imitation. Most of us were excluded from that world by apartheid, so it seems reasonable that the end of legalised racism should allow everyone to gravitate to the formal economy that once served a few.

And so, on both sides, the world of a minority comes to be seen as the only place where people can make a decent living. It is also why millions will not work in the formal economy. That is no cause for despair. There is much we can do to support economic activity outside offices, shops and factories. But the fixation with formal jobs means we don’t discuss these remedies.

A first step would be to recognise that, at least in part, our debate expresses a prejudice. If real work happens only in the formal workplace, the township panel beater, the shack settlement barber and the person who sells fruit on a street corner are not really working. The mainstream is ashamed of them and so it ignores them, railing against our society’s lack of entrepreneurship when millions are being entrepreneurial every day. Or worse, officials chase them away, snuffing out economic energy and causing hardship in equal measure.

As the only voices in the debate are those of the formal economy, the jobs debate imposes the economic world of some of us on all, obscuring problems and solutions.

A second step would be to acknowledge that those who display this enterprise and energy face many obstacles, so it is not enough to insist they be left alone: they need support and we have evidence that this can make a huge difference.

Social grants may be maligned by those who want governments to help only businesses and the middle class. But they do far more than protect people from poverty — they help kick-start economic activity. In rural areas, where not long ago the only economic activity was queuing for jobs, people are now buying and selling and, no doubt, manufacturing. This is possible because of the grants, which have dealt people into the economy.

If a couple of hundred rand a month can do that, how much more could be achieved with programmes that offer people outside the formal economy training, infrastructure, access to markets and personal safety? These are not welfare measures that "create dependency". They are keys to a growing economy.

Perhaps someone should offer a prize for the first political party or interest group to shed the job fantasy and start talking about how we are going to strengthen the economy in which most South Africans live.

But, as those who live in that world have little voice, the chances that the prize will be claimed are slim.

Picture Source: THINKSTOCK

By Steven Friedman

Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.

Article Source: Business Day