Jobs: one hand giveth, the other taketh away
South Africans can be forgiven for stifling a barely concealed yawn at the prospect of yet another jobs summit, this one convened under the cleansweep broom of President Cyril Ramaphosa. Strategies, interventions, plans, master plans, blueprints — this is familiar territory. These jamborees, typically attended by the usual triumvirate of “business, government and labour”, usually end with ringing declarations, the import of which is that thousands of jobs will be “created”. At the risk of sounding a jaundiced note amid the optimism evinced by summit-goers, one has to ask whether such events are not just a convenient mask for the sad reality, which is that while government-convened summits plan jobs, the very same government is hard at work ensuring by its actions or lack of action that unemployment remains stubbornly high, especially among the youth.
Some years ago, then finance minister Pravin Gordhan had to fight all comers in an attempt to introduce a “youth wage”, with the unions fearing it would displace older workers in favour of younger, cheaper ones. Perhaps one can hardly blame Cosatu for wanting to protect the livelihoods of older workers. But it was instructive that an initiative aimed at alleviating youth unemployment was resisted, not welcomed.
In virtually every sector capable of producing jobs, but which has not, the dead hand of government is never far away. In mining, SA has lost out on successive minerals booms and jobs windfalls because of a focus, close to obsession, with a mining charter that, in truth, will benefit few beyond a wealthy elite.
What about agriculture? Sure, but not without a land-reform agenda that would scare the khaki socks off any boer. Tourism? Sure, but let’s make visitors jump through hoops before they can set foot in our country. Labour? Yes, there’s plenty of it, but only to be employed under conditions that only the fanciest of corporations can afford.
So that is the hard truth: pander to middle-class voters with populist-style promises that sound modern but which leave millions without work and hope. Or grasp the nettle, forget the fancy stuff, and free our job-creating sectors from the shackles of socialist populism. Given the need for jobs, one might have thought that was a no-brainer.