Of all the structural fault-lines in the SA economy, the decades-long rise in joblessness has been our most difficult to overcome. The pandemic has worsened the jobs crisis, as was showed this week.

Unemployment came in worse than expected at 32.5% in the fourth quarter of 2020 and is now entrenched as the highest of all countries tracked by Bloomberg.

The figures are in stark contrast to the upbeat assessment of our unemployment situation given by President Cyril Ramaphosa in last week’s reply to questions over his state of the nation address. He pointed to data that showed by October 2020, “total employment had recovered to almost reach the level seen in February, just before the pandemic”.

The truth is about 333,000 jobs were recovered in the fourth quarter, meaning that 1.4-million jobs remain lost over the Covid-19 period.

The restrictions that were reintroduced at the height of the festive period in December as Covid-19 cases rose exponentially may have a lot to do with the deterioration as the local tourism industry buckled under the added pressure of having beaches and other public areas closed.

A bleeding tourism and hospitality sector often plays itself out in one particular manner that is often forgotten by economists: its effect on women and black women in particular. In this sector alone, women make up about 70% of the workforce.

Perhaps it’s just a topic not explored nearly enough as we concentrate on unemployment as a national crisis that is severely affecting black youth and black women. More than 55% of black youth and 38.5% of black women were unemployed in the fourth quarter of 2020, Stats SA found.

Vulnerabilities of black women

This picture is grimmer when you consider that employed black women are paid the least for their labour. The average monthly income for black female professionals is almost 30% less than their white contemporaries and more than 60% off the highest earners, white male professionals. If efforts at structural and systemic redress do not recognise the particular vulnerabilities of black women, our problems will remain unsolved.

One of the outcomes of the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns that began almost a year ago was that it exposed the inequities in our society primarily along racial lines given the early design of this country. This week’s employment figures reveal just how deep our structural faults are and that black women are carrying the greater economic cost.

Living in a patriarchal society as we do, we know that in our private homes women carry a much greater burden. Those lucky enough to be employed also have to take on the bulk of the domestic responsibilities including unpaid care burdens.

Women and girls have also been exposed to increased domestic violence. In this climate, where we can expect job losses to increase in the months to come if growth does not ratchet up and quickly, it’s going to get more difficult for women to remain competitive. As such, some of us will remain in a trap of dependency on the opposite gender.

It’s a global affliction, in truth. A recent UN report showed that women workers globally have been disproportionately affected by job losses, reduced working hours and bankruptcy due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Over the shorter term and in a SA context, there is a desperate need to boost our economic prospects and to slow job losses that are affecting women in the main, who make up the majority in the country.

High jobless rate

Developments around the distribution of the Covid-19 vaccines, both locally and globally, should lift business confidence and hopefully that will encourage companies to start expanding capacity. However, with the number of jobless and discouraged work seekers entering the market remaining high, any upliftment in employment would not eat into our structurally high jobless rate over the medium term.

There are 2.9-million people who’ve given up hope of ever finding work and are considered as economically non-active. While it is incorrect to say that no jobs have been created in the post democratic era, the issue is that we just have not created as many jobs to meet the annual increase in people joining the workforce every year.

While we hope vaccine rollouts and a more buoyant commodity sector may help growth in the short term, as South Africans we will continue to be weighed down by structural deficiencies such as power shortages and policy uncertainties that limit the pace of recovery in employment growth.

The way to begin making a dent in our unemployment problem is through economic growth. This growth needs to be inclusive and can be achieved in an environment which is conducive for business to grow. Strong inclusive growth brings numerous benefits which flow from higher profits in the private sector leading to expansion and increased employment — and higher tax revenues for the state.

This column was written by Busi Mavuso and was first published in Business Day.

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