"IF WE create enough jobs to keep the youth off the streets, we will be saved. If we cannot, South Africa will implode." I put the statement in quotation marks because it has become a gospel truth. Question it and you risk being declared insane.
And yet it is wrong. If we are honest with ourselves, we have long ago given up trying to employ everyone, or even to halve unemployment. The idea that job creation will save us is just a habit of thinking. And it is a dangerous habit. If we don’t shrug it off, we may, ironically, bring on our worst fears and destroy our country.
South Africa started bleeding jobs in the mid-1970s, along with much of the rest of the world. We have been bleeding jobs ever since. Look at the graphs and it is as clear as daylight. Over the past 40 years, the rise in the unemployment rate has at times stalled, at times even reversed by a few percentage points. But the deep trend is clear. It hasn’t mattered who has been in power or whether our political system has been a racial dictatorship or a democracy, or whether our labour law has been rigid or flexible — we cannot employ everybody. We can’t even come close. To think that we can is to indulge in millenarian thinking, as if Jesus will come and remake the world, as if there is a thing called magic.
Deep down, we know this. For while we talk about creating jobs, we have been doing something else — we have been handing out grants. Some say that it is a stopgap measure, just to tide us over until jobs are found. Others say that it is creating a culture of idleness from which there will be no return.
But if we are honest, it is what we do now and what we will keep doing forever. It is a substitute for work and it holds the country together; it has saved many millions from starvation and misery.
If we accept that welfare is permanent, we must go the whole hog; we must start giving grants to the one category of poor people entirely excluded from them — young men. Some say that this would spell disaster; the youth would never look for work again. But that is dead thinking that made sense long ago, in a time when jobs were plentiful. There isn’t sufficient demand to employ this country’s young men. We will either give them grants or they will get nothing. They are our fellow citizens, after all. To put some money in their pockets to spend as they wish is to confer upon them some dignity.
There is another argument against resigning ourselves to mass unemployment. If we do not create work, it is said, the jobless will revolt. But that is no more than a mantra; it does not reflect what is actually happening in the world. Look around. Who is revolting? It is not the unemployed. It is people with union jobs — platinum and gold mineworkers, grape workers. Why are they revolting? Mainly because they are forced to feed the many who do not work. Their wages are paying for the education of nephews and nieces, for the funerals of relatives, for the half-dozen members of their families who cannot find a job. They are stumbling under the burden. That is why they are so furiously angry.
We have lifted some of the weight off their shoulders by paying pensions to the elderly and child-support grants to needy mothers. But had we gone the whole hog and paid a basic income grant to all, we would have freed mineworkers and others from an intolerable responsibility. There may well have been no Marikana, no Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, no demands to double gold mineworkers’ wages. Our country would surely be more stable.
If we shake the cobwebs from our minds, it becomes a no-brainer. Mass unemployment is a fact. Somebody has to pay for it. Too much of the burden is falling on the shoulders of those who earn R5,000 a month. We are redistributing from the poor to the very poor. It is a ridiculous situation, palpably and egregiously unfair, a recipe for disaster. It is the well-off who should be putting money in the pockets of the unemployed. Here, then, is the irony in all its splendour. We fear that if we do not create jobs for all, South Africa will explode. But precisely because we fail to accept that there are no jobs for all, we are creating the sort of country that may well explode.
The productive economy is going to have to support the unemployed forever and amen. We should recognise that as an unalterable fact. If we shift the burden of support from the working poor, if we put it instead where it belongs, on the shoulders of people like you and me, we may just be okay.
• Steinberg teaches African Studies at Oxford University