UN – SA-TIED and Econ3x3 policy debate: Rethinking traditional approaches to tackling unemployment in South Africa

By Mpho Matlhabegoane and Lindelani Mnisi

According to the first quarter of 2023, youth unemployment statistics, shared by Stats SA, 62.1% of South African youth are sitting at home with no jobs. This is an alarming statistic given the majority of the country’s youth population. These stats are cause for concern and a call for the public and private stakeholders to mobilise their resources towards a redress of the status quo.

Proactively responding to this, The United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research (UNU-WIDER) hosted the Econ3X3 and SA-TIED (Southern Africa – Towards Inclusive Economic Development) Policy Debate to rethink traditional approaches to tackling unemployment in South Africa. Mentioned on the media advisory, is the background of the two forces behind the event. It was stated that, “SA-TIED programme supports policy making for inclusive growth and economic transformation in the Southern Africa region. It is a collaboration between the National Treasury of South Africa, UNU-WIDER and many other governmental and research organizations in South Africa. Econ3X3 is an independent online economic policy newsletter based at SALDRU (the South African Labour and Development Research Unit) in the School of Economics at the University of Cape Town. It covers research on economic policy, particularly focusing on Unemployment, Inequality, and Poverty.”

The motion of the Policy Debate was “Rethinking traditional approaches to tackling unemployment in South Africa.” The Debate focused on how we can get people of working age into work and make sure all the measures (grants and labour policies) in place align with one another towards a unified goal. The hybrid debate took place at the Future Africa Campus Auditorium of the University of Pretoria, South Africa. It drew the audience of Dr Rashad Cassim, a deputy governor of the South African Reserve Bank (SARB) and a member of the Monetary Policy Committee.

Out of the chamber perspectives and expertise to the discussion were brought by a “well-versed on the topic” moderator, Ayabonga Cawe, and six panellists who are acclaimed economists, policymakers, government representatives, and civil society members, namely:

  • Dr Kate Phillip (Programme Lead: Presidential Employment Stimulus, South Africa)
  • Michael Sachs (Adjunct Professor, Southern Centre for Inequality Studies, University of the Witwatersrand)
  • Dr Thabi Leoka (Director, Naha Advisory)
  • Sibusiso Gumbo (Director, Macroeconomic Policy, National Treasury of South Africa)
  • Dr Haroon Bhorat (Professor of Economics and Director of the Development Policy Research Unit, University of Cape Town)
  • Amanda Rinquest (National Education and Training Manager, Black Sash).

After the warm reception of the event by Kezia Lilenstein, Associate Programme Officer of UNU-WIDER, the opening remarks were made by Professor Tshilidzi Marwala. In his remarks, he shared his personal opinions, saying, “I think with over 15 million people who are in one form of a grant or another,” while looking at Adjunct Professor Michael Sachs on the panellists ensuring agreement, and continued, “I think we are reaching a stage where the grants in South Africa are simply unaffordable.”

He added, “So, whatever policies that we need to put into place, they have to be based on getting people to work.” Besides the fact that he did a PhD in Artificial Intelligence from 1997 to 2000 at the University of Cambridge, he mentioned that he still could not “foresee the scale at which it was going to disrupt the economy.”

It is a herd of elephants that the Fourth Industrial Revolution will diminish many old jobs, but so will it create new ones. Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, however, said, “We do not know whether the jobs that are going to be created are going to be at least equal to the jobs that are going to be destroyed.”

Murray Leibbrandt (National Research Foundation Chair in Poverty and Inequality Research in the School of Economics, University of Cape Town) gave the audience the background on SA-TIED Research and Econ3X3. He explained the work the organisations and institutions have done so far regarding policymaking and the leading contributions to data collection. Following were the panellist’s introductions by the moderator, Ayabonga Cawe.

The panellists had the following points to share:

Kickstarting the debate, Dr Philip remarked that the debate so often descends into a set of binary choices: grants or instruments like public employment. She also said, “a key message here is that the starting point for any society has to be to address hunger.” Following right after, Professor Sachs further expanded that one of the binaries that frequently arise in the South African debate is the binary between a development state and a welfare state.

Continuing the debate with her inputs, Dr Thabi felt that the failure to deliver a better life for all has got us here to talk about this very discussion. She highlighted how a history of financial inequality led to this country’s economic woes. Sibusiso, next in line to share his perspective, argued that the structural unemployment challenge in SA is really about new people that are interfacing with the labour market. He raised the point that 1.8 million jobs have been created since the inception of the Courtly Labour Force in 2008, but that the labour market has grown by 5.3 million in that same period, outpacing job availability.

Adding new dimensions to the debate, however, Dr Bhorat said, “We haven’t thought about the entry point (of poverty alleviation) being firms and the support that needs to come from the government towards firms.” Amanda then rounded off the discussion by mentioning that the constitution is the cornerstone which says every single person unable to provide for themselves must be given some form of social security, reminding us that social intervention is a basic right and not a privilege.

While the evening of the debate ended positively, where stakeholders committed to continue to enhance evidence-based policy formulations in the years ahead, it became evident that to tackle this pandemic, a multifaceted approach needed to happen. Future series are anticipated where the UN would invite a larger audience for the subsequent policy debates.

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About the authors:

Mpho Matlhabegoane

Mpho (MrSir) Matlhabegoane is one of the A! Writers Hub writers. He uses writing as a tool for Mental Health Advocacy. He became an Activator in 2019. He was trained and mentored by SWITCH and NMM.

He is a Founder and Management Director of MSPT (Pty) Ltd – which focuses on simplifying mathematics for FET Learners and on book distribution in South Africa. He worked as an All Rounder at Brain Waves Development Org. – which focuses on STEMI Projects and competition. He has been a Marketing Manager at Uhunu Career G&L Org., which focuses on simplifying career paths for FET Learners, and used to work at Mpumalanga Technical College as a Mathematics facilitator.

He worked with several schools around South Africa on SGB Posts and Education Assistant Posts as a Mathematics facilitator as well as Extra Class Teacher through his Programme (MSPT) – such as Langlaagte Tegniese Hoerskool (Gauteng), Michael Modisakeng Secondary School (North West) and Seruane High School (Mpumalanga). He used to work as one of the Mathematics Tutors for SSIP Programme in Gauteng. He is a published author of four books, namely: The Story Of MrSir, Views and Emotions, Expanding The World Of Nerds, and featured in Poetry Lockdown, as of 2023.

Lindelani Mnisi

An animator, writer, and philosopher. Lindelani Mnisi, a 2019 Activator from Mpumalanga, loves art, history and science. He occasionally participates in civil society to help shape the nation for the better.

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