We need a Minister of Employment
Unemployment is the most important issue facing SA at the moment. If we do not grow employment numbers aggressively and quickly, we face an increase in poverty and inequality that could result in a populist uprising. Past attempts at dealing with this issue have failed and we now need a new approach. We need a Minister of Employment who will stand or fall based on employment levels. This needs to be a very senior appointment, which has the mandate and power to co-ordinate efforts across all ministerial portfolios, unions, NGOs and the private sector.
For much of the past 15 years, more than one third of South Africans have been unemployed (using the expanded definition). The most recent expanded unemployment rate (October 2015) was 34.4% (whilst on the narrow definition, the rate was 25.5%). For the youth, the situation is much worse with almost half of people between 15 and 34 being unemployed on the expanded definition (and more than 60% of those between 15 and 24). We are sitting on an unemployment powder keg in SA.
Whilst numerous reasons can be put forward for our low employment numbers in SA, including low cash deployment and increasing automation by the private sector, inflexibility of labour, low economic growth and weak commodity prices, the main responsibility should lie with our government. Globally, governments stand or fall based on their ability to reduce unemployment levels. SA should be no different.
It is time that our Government identifies unemployment as the top priority for our country and throws all that it can at dealing with the problem. Despite having a large cabinet with 35 ministers, there is not one department (or minister) that has as its primary responsibility the increase of employment in SA. The Department of Labour comes the closest, but in its stated vision, “employment creation” is only mentioned after “investment” and “economic growth” as priorities. The Department of Labour and the Minister of Labour also do not appear to rank amongst the most senior portfolios and ministers in cabinet, with the departments such as Treasury, Basic Education, Health, International Relations, etc., attracting much more attention. It is difficult to see Minister Mildred Oliphant dictating to Minister Pravin Gordhan on appropriate tax rates for promoting job creation; demanding from Minister Malusi Gigaba that visa regulations need to be relaxed to boost tourism; or setting targets for Minister Angie Motshekga and Minister Blade Nzimande on the number of science and engineering graduates required to boost the SA economy.
What we need in this country is a new Ministry that has as its sole responsibility the creation of employment. We need a Minister of Employment. This needs to be a very senior appointment in the league of a Nhlanhla Nene or a Trevor Manuel. The Minister of Employment should be empowered to co-ordinate all the resources within the cabinet to address the issue of unemployment. As such, this minister should be the chair of an inter-ministerial committee, including Treasury, Labour, Education, Public Enterprises, Tourism, Trade and Industry and other relevant portfolios. This minister should report directly to the president and provide at least quarterly feedback to Parliament. This minister should stand or fall by trends in employment numbers.
The Minister of Employment should be involved at a high level with all areas in SA that are needed to promote employment growth. As the ultimate champion of employment, this minister must ensure that all areas are working in concert, that duplication is avoided and that all the required energy is focused on the problem of unemployment.
The Minister should have insight and influence over all legislation and regulations in SA to ensure that they are aligned (or at least not contrary) to increasing employment. With such a minister in place, we would not have experienced the own goal of stringent visa regulations impacting tourist numbers and hence tourism employment growth.
A task team should be formed with industry, Treasury, the DTI and other parties to identify specific job-creating industries to promote through regulations, tax incentives and protection, if needed. Similarly, a task team should be established with organised labour and the private sector, possibly using the Nedlac infrastructure, but chaired and driven by the Minister of Employment. This task team must ensure that the labour environment becomes more flexible (even if only in selected job-creating industries) to boost employment growth.
The Minister of Employment should involve organisations such as Brand SA, Proudly SA, SA Tourism, Homecoming Revolution and others in a co-ordinated campaign to promote SA as an investment destination and the consumption of SA-produced products over imported ones.
On the skills front, the Minister should co-ordinate a strategy to ensure that the country produces the right graduates, provides the right vocational training and imports the right skills to support the industries identified to be major job creators. To achieve this, the Departments of Basic and Higher Education need to be involved as well as the Department of Home Affairs and the private sector.
There are numerous other areas where the Minister of Employment could become involved, including trade deals with other countries, infrastructure development, agriculture, science and technology, public enterprises, etc.
The role of Minister of Employment will be very challenging and will require hard work and commitment. However, we need large plans to address large problems. This role will need support from a wide range of role players, regardless of political affiliation. There should be large-scale buy-in from all South Africans. It is difficult to see how the vast majority of South Africans would not benefit from growing employment. Solving this problem will go a long way to addressing other problems facing SA. I therefore call upon the ANC, opposition parties, the Government, private sector, NGOs and ordinary citizens to speak out and demand action on unemployment. I call for your support in appointing a Minister of Employment (together with the power and support that such a role requires) immediately. We cannot afford to wait any longer.
Do you agree that unemployment is the most serious challenge facing SA? Do you think more can be done with centralised planning and coordination? Would you support the appointment of a Minister of Employment? What suggestions do you have to improve my description of this new role? I would love to hear your feedback.
In the mean time, keep your talking straight!