South Africa’s Unemployment Puzzle

By Abebe Aemro Selassie

Among the havoc wrought by the global financial crisis, unemployment ranks at the top. This discussion often focuses on the situation in advanced countries. Unemployment in the United States, for example, continues to hover around 9 percent.

Take that and double it. Then you can begin—yes, just begin—to get a sense of the magnitude of the problem in South Africa. Unemployment in South Africa now stands at some 24 percent. Youth unemployment is phenomenally higher still at some 50 percent.

Unemployment in South Africa was already very high before the crisis due to a number of structural factors—such as mismatches between the kinds of jobs available and workers’ skills, or large distances between population centers and where businesses are located.

But, the enormous job losses during 2008-09 made the already dire situation much worse. South Africa did not have a financial crisis and its recession was, relatively speaking, mild. Still, the country lost proportionately as many formal sector jobs (1 million) as those countries at the center of the global financial crisis.

Like the government, we see reducing unemployment as the foremost economic challenge facing the country. Trying to understand why recent labor markets outcomes have been so bad and, more important still, what it will take to reverse the increase in unemployment is a thus an ongoing focus of our work.  

Pieces to the puzzle

One interesting finding is that, despite high unemployment, South Africa’s labor markets are relatively dynamic. During the growth upswing of the mid-2000s, the country was very good at creating jobs; but when the economy hits a rough patch, job losses also tend to be very high. For each 1 percentage point increase in growth, employment growth tends to increase by more than 1 percentage point. Unfortunately, the same is true when growth declines.

This goes some way towards explaining the relatively large magnitude of job shedding during the recent recession. But it also implies that wages do not respond much to changes in the demand for labor. When there is an adverse shock to demand, it is the level of employment rather than wages that adjust. Of course, in most countries, wages are generally ‘sticky’ downwards and do not decline in nominal terms. But seldom does one also see large economy-wide increases in real wages—wages rising faster than inflation—during a recession. Yet, that is exactly what happened in South Africa in 2009.

Last December I had the opportunity to meet with some Members of South Africa’s Parliament. We exchanged views on the impact of the global financial crisis on the country. When I laid out the ideas above, one of the Members asked if I thought that the country’s employment protection laws were the cause. As I noted then, this is not my view. Indeed, I firmly believe that the country’s labor legislation provides important and necessary—and hard won—protection for workers. Rather, what would be worthwhile is a close look at the wage bargaining framework to ensure that most of the adjustment in the labor market does not continue to fall mainly on the number of jobs. Wage moderation during downturns would not seem that unreasonable a trade-off.

Likely solutions

Beyond a more flexible wage bargaining framework, here’s my take on what is required to make significant inroads into high unemployment in South Africa.

Higher growth. The government’s recent budget document noted that annual growth of the order of 6‑7 percent will be needed to meet the target of creating 5 million jobs by 2020. The current fairly supportive monetary and fiscal policies will help in the near-term. But it is unclear where the impetus for the higher growth will come from once macroeconomic policies turn less supportive, with a view to rebuilding the policy buffers run down over the last couple of years. Ideally, growth should be private investment and export led. Looking for ways to promote private investment thus needs to be firmly on the reform agenda in the coming months.

Making growth more labor intensive. Another approach that should help is targeted interventions to address unemployment in particularly problematic areas—such as youth unemployment. This is, in part, because current wage setting mechanisms do not allow differences in wages that would fully reflect productivity differences between young and old workers. A wage subsidy scheme along the lines recently announced by the government should serve to make it cheaper for firms to employ young workers. Provided the subsidy is carefully designed, it should avoid the displacement of existing workers and also minimize substitution away from older workers.

More competitive product markets. One of the other problematic features of the South Africa economy is the relatively high cost structure of many of its markets for goods and services. By contributing to higher input costs, this inhibits the external competitiveness of manufacturing and other tradable sectors. Enhancing domestic competition should lower costs for companies but importantly also for consumers.

The big blemish on South Africa’s otherwise strong economic performance since the mid-1990s is stubbornly high unemployment. Of course this is an important exception, especially as it has exacerbated income inequality. Doubling growth—from the current 3½ percent—is the first order of business. And this in turn requires changing the incentives facing firms and employees.

2017-04-15T14:27:15-05:00April 4, 2011|


  1. Per Kurowski April 4, 2011 at 8:03 am

    “Among the havoc wrought by the global financial crisis, unemployment ranks at the top”

    I would rephrase that: “Among the havoc wrought by the global banking regulations, unemployment ranks at the top.”

    Why? Because there is not one single word, in the whole Basel Committee Banking Supervision literature, that makes reference to the absolutely vital role of the banks in the capital allocation process that helps to generate jobs. Basel does not care where the banks lead the economy as long as the banks do not default. I guess the final job alternatives for our grandchildren will be as substitutes for the ATMs at the one and only too systemically huge to fail bank left in the world.

    I am not suggesting it, but, would capital requirements for banks based on job creation be such a lousy concept? Is it not more important stopping the world from failing than stopping the banks from failing?

  2. Rodger Malcolm Mitchell April 4, 2011 at 8:10 am

    “Provided the subsidy is carefully designed, it should avoid the displacement of existing workers and also minimize substitution away from older workers.”

    In reality, this is impossible. Micromanaging the economy always turns out badly.

    Jobs come from strong businesses, and businesses create jobs from demand. The key for the government is to create demand by pumping money into the economy, while keeping interest rates high enough to prevent inflation.

    It’s not jobs that people want; it’s money. An economy that is short of jobs actually is starved for money.

    A growing economy requires a growing supply of money.

    Rodger Malcolm Mitchell

  3. Syu Jeng-Chyang April 4, 2011 at 12:56 pm

    The same exit strategy of the USA strong exports and private sector investment, very interesting.

  4. Per Kurowski April 4, 2011 at 9:56 pm

    Employment, and Revolution in the Middle East, Amr Shady of T.A. Telecom of Egypt, said something like “Our entrepreneurs need to learn the skill of failure, so to have access to the resources we can pivot into successes”… That should be applicable to South Africa too.

    It is a message that should urgently be conveyed to the Basel Committee for Banking Supervision and the Financial Stability Board where they keep insisting on raising the incentives for banks to lend to what is officially perceived as not risky and to avoid like plague what is officially perceived as risky. With it, instead of having the banks fish for something important and productive in risky deep waters, they make them waste their time fishing in unproductive triple-A rated shallow waters… where they nonetheless overcrowd and drown.

  5. Chris Ryan October 20, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    global banking regulations have finished the world… giving loans by way of credit cards and housinge loans have lead to the situation in which we are today. We’re going into a further recession currently or rather I would say a depression… and it looks like it’s going to be a major one..

    An economy requires the right kind of attitude to grow and succeed.

  6. […] Selassie, A. (2011, April 4). South Africa’s Unemployment. Blog IMF Direct. Retrieved November 20, 2011 from […]

  7. […] knowledge; this question has always fascinated me. Here is one additional account.  Here is an IMF analysis.  Here are some World Bank powerpoints.  I told him I would try to answer the question, but after […]

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