Some Help Towards Creating Half a Million Jobs in the Next Six Months

By Glenn Ashton · 17 Jun 2009

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Picture credit: Trevor Samson - World Bank
Picture credit: Trevor Samson - World Bank

Is President Jacob Zumas proposal to create the 'opportunity' for half a million jobs in South Africa over the next six months a goal that we all must embrace? 

Perhaps the greatest risk South Africa faces is of the chasm between rich and poor widening to ever more extreme proportions, threatening to rend the fragile social fabric of our young nation. So how can we, as a nation, reduce the economic disparity in the most efficient manner?

Social polarisation through increased disparity of wealth is a major driver of crime, of non-observance of social norms, of the breakdown of traditional family and cultural structures. It is a trigger for political radicalisation. It narrows the space for dialogue, replacing it with demands for attention to be paid to the most pressing needs of hunger and shelter. We have already seen sporadic outbreaks of these demands in the forms of so-called service delivery protests, born of frustration over apparent inaction by elected representatives.

The states failure to bring the poor majority into the fold of meaningful economic participation is the greatest failure of our national development. While many things have been addressed, it is inadequate for politicians to highlight success stories of the delivery of water, sanitation, education and so on if the underlying economic issues are not being dealt with.

Service delivery protests are directly related to the implementation of the government's Extended Public Works Programme (EPWP), begun by President Mbeki and extended post Polokwane. The ruling oligarchy is aware that BEE and other redistributive programmes will primarily benefit a small, already well-connected coterie. One solution is to try to change perceptions amongst the increasingly disaffected majority through implementation of the EPWP.

History has demonstrated that if the majority remain in penury, democratic structures will be reclaimed, either through the ballot box or by force. A tendency towards populism and a gradual shift to an ungovernable nation becomes inevitable. The people of the Western Cape have already indicated their concerns by perversely choosing to support the opposition Democratic Alliance, an apartheid hangover that has done more to maintain the neo-liberal status quo than to transform the socio-economic realities of the apartheid legacy

It is therefore incumbent upon those that are able to – both from within the state and the private sector - to do their utmost to bridge the divide. Job creation is indeed an urgent priority. But if jobs are created or if people are provided with relevant skills, these should herald sustainable, long-term opportunities, which promote stability by enabling people to provide for themselves.

Unfortunately, most of the present state created jobs and opportunities lie within the ambit of the EPWP. This concept, reminiscent of Rooseveltian 'New Deal' thinking, aims mainly at creating short term jobs and 'opportunities.' It is questionable whether the EPWP will encourage or enable long-term employment in its present guise. 

It is also remarkable as to how little of the vast capital costs attached to the EPWP actually reach those which it was meant to benefit. Analysis of the most recent available figures provided by the EPWP programme indicate that while it may be meeting its stipulated 'targets', a small proportion actually trickles down to the target beneficiaries. Top heavy administration, together with steep management and consultancy fees devour a disproportionate amount. Poor implementation means not all funds are actually accessed. These shortcomings need attention. 

What creative ways do we have to overcome these challenges? Thousands of people were trained in one of our earliest and most praised employment creation schemes, Working for Water, which is now falls under the ambit of the EPWP. Working for Water involved removal of invasive alien plants that threaten both water supply and biodiversity. It has unlocked more potential water supply than the billion Rand Berg river dam, at less than half the cost – an important consideration in a water poor nation. However, many of those who were trained remain unemployed, despite their acquired skills . The problem is that nobody will use this labour pool if they do not have to. 

It would be both practical and beneficial for the state to force far more stringent implementation of the law that governs land infested by alien plants, the Conservation of Agricultural Resources Act, presently managed by a seriously understaffed Department of Agriculture. 

This role should rather be devolved to municipal level, by forcing municipalities to implement by-laws that forbid the sale, transfer and development applications for land, before it has been cleared of invasive aliens, as well as making owners have a programme to clear invasive plants. Property owners who cannot afford to clear could lodge a lien against the property, when the cost can be offset and recovered upon payment, transfer or sale.

This would lead to the problem being institutionalised and tackled far more systematically. Before any property transaction takes place a certificate of clearance must be issued by a licensed, delegated authority. This could be recruited from amongst those already trained  in the Working for Water programme. Such inspection is no different to the already mandatory implementation of electrical and beetle inspections.

Creation of these legal frameworks will encourage creation of a far more structured and sustainable workforce. This could create opportunities for at least a generation, with many spin-offs. This is just one example of transforming a short-term 'hand-out' programme into to a long-term 'hand up' job creation project. Not only would inspectors be employed, but so too would already trained contract teams.

Similar projects could be initiated in other sectors. The agricultural land care project could assume a similar role so that if land that is degraded or eroded, assessments could be made and then remedial action enforced through similar structures to the above example.  Experience has shown that national enforcement is far too clumsy and remote. Problems must be tackled at their roots, enabling locals to benefit while meeting the overall aim of these programmes.

Similarly, land controlled by traditional leaders needs to be brought under more objective regulation. Agricultural programmes have generally languished in rural areas because responsibility to implement these programmes is not sufficiently transparent. This must  devolve in order that the community at large benefits. Lessons must be taken from both successes and failures, while always considering the intended beneficiaries.

As far as law and order goes, the EPWP offers opportunities to access community assistance to the police through active participation of community structures. Bottom up structures, linking street committees to the successful Bambanani programme, and thence to the police seems sensible and practical. These must be formalised, again within national or local policing programmes. Again, this would empower communities to deal with its problems through transparent, participatory structures.

Law enforcement can also be supported by community participation in nuisance crimes like littering, dumping and illegal signage. By training monitors to enforce local by-laws, prosecution rates can be increased and employment costs recovered on a polluter pays basis.

Another cost-effective way to expand this programme is into community health. Cost effective systems such as DOTS (The Direct Observed Treatment Short course, used to deal with the still growing TB epidemic), community nutrition and de-worming programmes, along with basic health and sanitation monitoring can all be accommodated in practical ways. These will reduce burdens on primary and secondary health practitioners while working toward a common goal. Community participation in cost effective health programmes can create stronger, healthier communities.

Energy demand side management can be assisted by creating a practical framework for the installation of millions of domestic solar water heating units. These have a far greater capacity for job creation and energy demand reduction than large-scale infrastructure development. 

There are many other ways that the EPWP can be practically implemented to redirect massive amounts of money towards assisting the target sectors, while simultaneously building a stronger and more cohesive society. Lateral thinking is needed to address urgent community needs such as better housing, security, health, water supplies and food security. Programmes must shift from top down devolution to practical, bottom upward, participative community involvement.

In order to bridge the socio-economic divide novel and sustainable developmental programmes need to be developed. The primary goal must be to work toward job creation at grass roots level, not simply around creating elusive, short-term 'opportunities.'  Through intelligently redirecting existing resources South Africa can begin to shift toward an integrated, developmental – as opposed to redistributive - state, whose primary aim is to benefit the most marginalised sectors of society.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at www.ekogaia.org.

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