THE unemployed are “organised as never before” and are mobilising, spurred on by SA’s stubbornly high jobless rate of 25% — among the highest in the world.
The dire employment situation has given rise to lobbying by the unemployed, whose effect is yet to be felt where it matters most — influencing government policy to ameliorate joblessness.
Plaatjie Mashego, director of the Unemployment Secretariat — which unites a number of lobby groups — says the unemployed are “organised as never before” but still fail to receive media attention or concerted national focus.
The Unemployment Secretariat was established in 2010 to co-ordinate groups including the Unemployed Peoples’ Movement, the Malamulele social movement of the unemployed and the Unemployed Peoples’ Party.
However, the lobby groups’ main action to date appears to have been an appeal to the United Nations to implement a “day for the unemployed”. But this failed to elicit a response, says Mr Mashego.
Mr Mashego himself has a job as a consultant advising small business on employment. He also participates in steering committees including Unite Against Corruption, the lobby group spearheaded by former Congress of South African Trade Unions general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi.
He says he has been working with the unemployed since 2000, with concerted efforts to get such groups off the ground, having started in 1996.
But the terrain is rocky and he has faced difficulty keeping the secretariat going since 2010.
While all political parties profess to speak to the interests of the unemployed, Mr Mashego is dismissive. The secretariat is now looking to work with anyone who will make a difference, he says.
Political analyst Steven Friedman says the difficulty for the unemployed is that they have no bargaining power, unlike workers, who could withdraw their labour. This is similar to the experience of other social movements, which require numbers and structure to be taken seriously, especially by political parties.
“It is a difficult thing to sustain … but not impossible. There is an Unemployed Womens’ Union in India that has been quite successful,” says Prof Friedman.
In SA, the unemployed’s lobby has run campaigns for the creation of a ministry of the unemployed — or at least a formal structure to co-ordinate between departments on jobs creation, says Mr Mashego.
Ideally, the group would like those without jobs to give input on policies, rather than the views of organised labour, which is seen as representing the interests of both workers and the unemployed.
Mr Mashego received brief media attention in 2007 when an affiliate, the Malamulele social movement of the unemployed, claimed responsibility for a series of ATM bombings nationally.
The move was a bid to bring attention to issues of the unemployed including how lack of job opportunities was fuelling crime.
The ATM bombings did not involve direct violence against individuals, says Mr Mashego, and the South African Police Service did understand that the claims were made for publicity purposes.
Another affiliate, the Unemployed Peoples’ Movement, which has structures in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, was in the news last month amid a flare-up of xenophobic violence in Grahamstown, where its members have tried to protect foreign-owned shops from violence and looting.
Unemployed People’s Movement chairman in Grahamstown Ayanda Kota says the group has been trying to dispel the belief that foreigners are taking away jobs or monopolising economic opportunities in an area in which unemployment is about 70%.
One lobby group that has been successful in pressuring municipalities and gaining public attention is the Abahlali baseMjondolo (Shack Dwellers) Movement SA. The group claims support in the tens of thousands, and led a boycott of the 2006 municipal elections in demand of adequate land and housing, but stands in support of other movements including the Unemployed Peoples’ Movement.
Political economy analyst Zamikhaya Maseti says accusations of exclusion during the conception of government macroeconomic frameworks — with labour and business often vocal — were a gripe for organised labour in previous years.
Yet the National Development Plan had broadly sought as much input as possible. “The evolution of that plan included almost everyone except those with serious ideological problems with it,” he said.
Mr Maseti said unemployment was likely to gain prominence on the political radar in SA in the coming months — as in 2009 — as it was expected that fourth-quarter growth rates would see SA formally in recession.