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Hopes Fade as South Africa’s Unemployment Hits Record High

Hope and Hopelessness in South Africa’s Record Unemployment
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Hope and Hopelessness in South Africa’s Record Unemployment

Lucky Nonyane is a qualified plumber and building inspector with two decades of experience. At one time, he said, he earned a good enough living to buy a car and to help out his now-grown children.

But times have changed, and so has his luck. South Africa's unemployment rate recently hit 29%, according to the nation’s statistics bureau.

Nonyane is one of the unlucky ones. His car now sits at home because he can’t afford to buy gas, and he takes public transportation each day to reach a Johannesburg hardware store where he stands outside with a sign, hoping to attract work.

“I’ve (gone), like, one month without a job,” he said. “And then I have to come here, look for a job, go home, and then expecting I’m going to find something at the end of the day. But then at the end of the day, you can’t get a job or something. And then tomorrow again you have to spend money again to come here.”

South Africa has long struggled with unemployment, part of a legacy of entrenched inequality and a severe skills shortage. But the problem has grown more severe, with the jobless rate now climbing to a 16-year high.

Ramaphosa's promise

During his campaign for re-election this year, President Cyril Ramaphosa said jobs were his top priority. But economists say Ramaphosa was up against some tough demographics.

“There was an entry into the job market of almost 600,000 on a year-on-year basis,” said Azar Jammine, chief economist for the Johannesburg-based think tank Econometrix. "And that means that the number of people who are leaving school or qualifying from college and entering the job market far exceeds the ability of the economy to actually accommodate them.”

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, delivers his party's election manifesto at the Moses Mabhida stadium in Durban, South Africa, Jan 12, 2019.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, delivers his party's election manifesto at the Moses Mabhida stadium in Durban, South Africa, Jan 12, 2019.

Those are people like 24-year-old Funda Buthelezi, who has been looking for a job for a month, without luck. He has a certification in computer skills, but says he struggles in the lingua franca of the South African workplace — English.

“You look for a job, and you want for a job, yes,” he said.

Buthelezi's struggles point to one of the causes of unemployment — corruption in the educational sector, which leaves many graduates woefully unprepared for the workforce.

Jammine said Ramaphosa’s plan to ease unemployment is further slowed by splits within the ruling African National Congress Party.

“In the short term, the only thing that Ramaphosa can really do is try and improve perceptions of his ability to fight corruption and state capture and to show an ability to actually come out on top within the factional fights within the ruling ANC alliance,” he said.

Buthelezi, who says he’s more comfortable in his native language, Zulu, gave the same assessment, but says he’s optimistic.

“I think that these are problems that were there already, like the corruption,” he said. “He’s still fixing problems like those so that once he starts fixing the current problems, everything will be in order.”

But that is little consolation for job seekers like Nonyane, who say they can’t afford patience.

"It’s difficult,” he said, as he prepared to wrap up another day without work. “It’s not like all these people are crazy here, holding boards. They’re trying to survive.”