SOUTH African unemployment fell unexpectedly in the last quarter of 2012, Statistics South Africa figures showed on Tuesday.

The jobless rate declined to 24.9% of the labour force in the fourth quarter from 25.5% in the previous quarter, Statistics South Africa said in its quarterly labour force survey.

This amounted to 4.5-million people without work in the fourth quarter, down from 4.67-million jobless in the previous three months, the agency said.

It is the first time since the inception of the survey that there was a decrease in employment in the fourth quarter of a year.

However, Mike Schussler, economist at Economists.co.za, said the decline in the unemployment rate merely showed a loss of hope.

"More and more people are discouraged from even looking for work because they know there are no jobs," he said.

The expanded definition of unemployment, which includes people who have stopped looking for work, was at 35.9% in the fourth quarter, from 36.3% previously.

A wave of wildcat strikes in the platinum and gold mining sectors that began in August did not translate into a higher unemployment rate, Statistics SA said.

"Despite the strikes observed in the mining industry in the recent past, no job losses were observed in the industry in the fourth quarter," the agency said. "However, there was a sharp increase in temporary absence from work."

Craig Parker, economist at Frost & Sullivan, said it was a positive result against the backdrop of labour unrest in the mining and agricultural sectors.

"The figures were in line with our expectations given the pick-up in the manufacturing sector," he said.

However, Shireen Darmalingam, economist at Standard Bank, said the decline in the unemployment rate was unexpected.

She said the detail was not encouraging as both the labour force and the number of employed declined.

"Prospects for 2013 are not very encouraging as there could be further spillover effects from the mining sector to the manufacturing sector," Ms Darmalingam said.

Of the 4.5-million people without work in the final quarter of 2012, nearly 70% had been looking for work for a year or more, Statistics SA said.

Nearly two-thirds had not finished high school and 42% had never worked.

With Reuters