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PoliticsSouth Africa

Africa's deepening unemployment crisis

Martina Schwikowski
March 20, 2023

Half of all young people in South Africa are unemployed while more than 1.2 million graduates are without jobs in Uganda. More own initiatives could ease unemployment in Africa, experts say.

Two young men leaning on wheelbarrows by a roadside and a youth with carrying a package on his shoulders
Young men in Nigeria waiting for customers who want to rent their wheelbarrowsImage: Thomas Lohnes/epd/imago images

Steven Moyo gets up every day at 5 a.m. to look for work on the streets of South Africa's economic metropolis, Johannesburg.

He talks to drivers at intersections, offers his services. Moyo is an electrician. On good days, he earns a maximum of €30 (around $31.50). But those days are becoming fewer.

South Africa is in a deep recession, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The situation has gotten worse. No one is there to hire us," Moyo told DW. He said he does not know where he will be able to earn money for food and rent.

Stories like Moyo's are not uncommon in South Africa.

In Cape Town, Namhla Mcimbi told DW that she had to abandon her psychology studies because she could no longer pay the tuition fees.

Like many of her fellow students, Mcimbi has now fallen into unemployment.

However, contacts are important for a possible way out, the 20-something pointed out. 

"People place their cousins, their sisters in companies, so it's hard for you to get a job as a stranger," she told DW.

Four women walking side by side along a sidewalk
Namhla Mcimbi (third from left) is strolls around Cape Town with her friends but without money to shop Image: Julia Jaki/DW

Unemployment rate dire in Namibia and Nigeria, too

The economic situation in South Africa is dire, with about half of all people under 34 unemployed.

Official figures show the joblessness rate has recovered slightly but at 32.7% in the fourth quarter of 2022, it is still among the highest both in Africa and the world.

The highest unemployment rates in the world were recently posted by Namibia and Nigeria, according to US media company Bloomberg. Djibouti and Eswatini also rank high on that list.

It is estimated that by 2050, a quarter of the world's working population will live in Africa.

Many unemployed South African youth took part in a major spate of looting and unrest in Johannesburg and Durban in July 2021.

President Cyril Ramaphosa then was forced to introduce a welfare benefit for the unemployed of around €18 per month, said Professor Patrick Bond, a sociologist and economist at the University of Johannesburg.

"This is a sign of the state's desperation to throw money at the problem," he told DW.

But Bond doesn't think this approach will achieve its goals. He argues for a basic income grant with a much higher amount of at least €40 per month to cover the vital costs of food and shelter.

But the main obstacle to this, he said, is international finance and pressure from credit rating agencies — high foreign debts put pressure on the finance minister to cut budgets and limit social wages. Political debates about a possible basic income in South Africa continue. 

A group of people sweep up debris outside a butchery
During COVID-19 lockdown in 2021, shops were looted in the South African cities of Johannesburg and DurbanImage: James Oatway/Getty Images

Lack of jobs — in rural and urban areas

The employment crisis in sub-Saharan Africa is worsening, according to a study compiled by economist and Africa expert Robert Kappel of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation's Africa Department.

"Every year, some 20 million people seek jobs that are not available in rural or urban areas," it said.

Uganda is another example of the large gap between job supply and job demand. Some 400,000 young Ugandans enter the labor market each year competing for only about 52,000 available formal jobs, according to one study.

The study said high employment growth will be needed to address rising social challenges.

More than 1.2 million young graduates are currently without jobs in Uganda. Maureen Babidiye used to be one of them. She trained in travel management at an aviation school and has now been unemployed for two years.

After internships at various companies Babidiye tried to get a airline crew job — without success.

"Competition is fierce and nothing works without contacts," she told DW.

A group of men around a solar panel display
Solar kiosks bring jobs and power in UgandaImage: DW

Experts say self-initiative counts

Now Babidiye wants to become self-employed and set up her own travel agency, which she wants to build online through contacts.

Self-initiative is exactly what counts these days, according to Charles Ocici, director of the Enterprise Uganda Foundation.

"Jobs are few and far between, and they will continue to be lost. This is true not only for Uganda, but worldwide," Ocici said. "The days are gone when everything went according to script — go to school, study hard and then get a job."

Ocici said people need to rethink and be open to getting involved in the market in valuable ways. As an employee, or else with your own private business.

"Many people are more supportive of those who have an open mind about starting a business."

Fear of Arab Spring-style uprising

The high level of discontent, especially among the youth, is increasingly worrying the establishment in South Africa, which fears an Arab Spring-style uprising, said the sociologist Patrick Bond.

In 2010, protests in Tunisia inspired young people in numerous Arab countries to revolt against political systems.

A women holds a placard with the words "Enough of the neglect, poverty and humiliation"
An Arab Spring anniversary protest against rising costs of living in Morocco in 2022Image: picture alliance/dpa/AP

In South Africa, this scenario is often portrayed as a threat from a ruling party that was once very supportive of youth rebellion but is now part of the oppression of the people because it follows Western economic policies, Bond said.

If the West continues to force South Africa to repay its debts and the country has less money for employment programs and social services, it risks turning the country further toward the BRICS countries of Russia, China and India and regimes like Iran and Saudi Arabia.

For Namhla Mcimbi in Cape Town, a glimmer of hope came after the frustration. She turned to Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator, an NGO that promotes youth employment through partnerships.

There, she learned basic requirements needed to find employment. Not long afterwards, she had landed a temporary job as a teaching assistant.

Frank Yiga and Jane Nyingi contributed to this article

Edited by Keith Walker and Benita van Eyssen