November 14, 2003

SOUTH AFRICA: A 'New Deal' for the unemployed

The public works programme revealed the biggest, most precise and most expensive pledge the government has made since it came to power in 1994, namely a million jobs opportunities over five years at a cost of R20-billion. With President Thabo Mbeki announcing details of the Expanded Public Works Programme and Minister of Finance Trevor Manuel officially putting the money behind it in his Medium Term Budget Policy Statement (MTBPS), jobs are now at the apex of the government's economic policy. "It's certainly well-conceived and government has taken a big risk," said Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) economist Neva Makgetla. Cosatu has pushed for an economic policy that focuses on cracking unemployment. In Pretoria, a team of 15 managers based at the Department of Public Works is putting the finishing touches to the plan, which will provide work in infrastructure construction, environmental protection programmes and community development.

The purpose of the expanded public works programme is two-fold. Firstly, to provide a safety net while high-growth industries (like motor manufacturing, high-value clothing production, and tourism) come into their own and create jobs. Makgetla warns that public works should not detract from formal-sector employment strategies - the lesson of the past economic cycle is that growth does not necessarily lead to large-scale employment.

Secondly, it is meant to help bring poor, unskilled and unemployed workers into South Africa's formal economy, by linking skills training to every job. Every public works participant will receive at least two days' training a month in formal-economy skills.

Sean Phillips, the head of Limpopo's public works department programmes, has been seconded to the national public works department to assist with the development of the programme. He says R15-billion will be spent on public works infrastructure, disbursed through and managed by provinces and local councils. Another R4-billion will go into environmental programmes such as Working for Water, while an initial R600-million will go to the community sector to fund a corps of community development workers likely to be deployed in providing home-based care for people living with Aids and in early childhood development.

Despite the downturn in revenue collection, more money will be available if the plan is implemented at scale over the next five years. The unskilled will be employed to build low-volume roads and dig trenches for electricity, sanitation and water pipelines and storm-water drains. Labour-intensive construction will be a mandatory part of such tenders. Opponents of public works often deride them as "digging a hole and filling it".

As the latest investigations have shown, there are 4,7-million unemployed poeple in South Africa, according to the official definition, and 7,8-million according to the expanded definition, which includes people who have given up looking for work. (Mail & Guardian, Johannesburg)

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