The president of South Africa has announced the launch of an ambitious new public works program.

In his annual speech to the upper house of Parliament, President Thabo Mbeki said his Cabinet has just approved a plan to roll out a massive public works program. He said he hopes the program will reach a million South Africans in its first five years.

"The Expanded Public Works Program is a nationwide program that will draw significant numbers of the unemployed into productive employment, so that workers gain skills while they are gainfully employed and increase their capacity to earn an income once they leave the program," said Mr. Mbeki.

The plan will use labor-intensive methods to upgrade roads, repair storm drains, and improve the water and sanitation infrastructure. The president said its success depends on all sectors of government working together.

South Africa already has a smaller-scale public works program known as Working For Water. It currently employs about 21,000 people. Several individual provinces also have their own local public works programs, and the president cited them as examples of how the expanded nationwide program might provide both jobs and training for South Africa's unskilled labor force.

President Mbeki did not say how much the program will cost or how it will be financed.

South Africa's unemployment rate stands at 30-40 percent, depending on which statistics are used. Economists say a big part of the problem is the large number of workers who have been laid off from the mining industry and agricultural sector during the past 10-15 years.

This has left South Africa with a large number of workers who lack the skills to move into other sectors of the economy. Analysts believe South Africa's economy is moving permanently away from those low-skilled industries, but the people who have worked in them are being left behind. The hope is that the public works program will help those people learn new skills so they can find jobs in the new economy.