Unemployment stats not fit for purpose in SA

If you drive around South Africa, it is evident that we have a massive unemployment problem. People are sleeping on the streets, scratching around in bins for food and are so keen to find some kind of job that will pay them, that they become intimidating. The latest official employment statistics by StatsSA were published earlier in May indicating that unemployment is rising and has reached 27.6% for the first quarter of 2019.  If “discouraged work seekers” are added, the expanded unemployment rate is 38%. Every political party member that has recently been sworn in at Parliament in Cape Town has emphasised the need to address the high unemployment rate in the country. A poll by the Association for Free Research and International Co-operation (Afric) who acted as observers in the May elections found that 73.2% of voters regarded unemployment as the issue that they were most worried about; compared to 39.1%  about corruption and 35.8 % who saw crime as their biggest concern. But how accurate are our unemployment statistics? Two Dutch researchers, Prof. Daniel Mügge and Dr Juliette Alenda-Demoutiez believe that the international measures that South Africa use is not creative enough to capture South Africa’s problem and has resulted in a skewed image of the country’s labour market woes. – Linda van Tilburg

Data fails to capture complexity of South Africa’s unemployment crisis

By Daniel Mügge and Juliette Alenda-Demoutiez*

It’s been 25 years since democracy dawned in South Africa. But apartheid’s legacies still scar the country. Poverty remains high; inequality remains extreme – and both follow racial lines. The same is true for unemployment. By conservative official standards, it stands at a staggering 27,6%, and it disproportionately affects black South Africans.

Effective policies to combat South Africa’s plight require good ideas, resources and political will. They also, however, need to build on a solid understanding of the problem in the first place. How can defects in the labour market be tackled if we don’t know what’s actually going on there? Good and relevant statistics are central to effective policies.

Unfortunately, there are limits to how well South Africa’s statistics can capture the situation in the country.

The international gold standard for employment figures comes from the International Labour Organisation in Geneva. According to its template, you count as unemployed if you (a) don’t work (a lot) for money, (b) are available for work, and (c) are actively looking for a job.

Read also: Ask politicians about our jobless masses – Bernstein

This definition originated in the 1920s. It was clearly built on the image of white, male factory workers in Europe and North America. If these men lost their jobs, that spelt social and political trouble. Unemployment statistics functioned as a thermometer for how well such factory economies hummed along.

Immediately after apartheid ended, South Africa’s statisticians tried to move away from the traditional definition of unemployment. For instance, they experimented with various more extended definitions of unemployment that would capture what they now call the “discouraged work seekers”.

But, as our recent research found, the country’s appetite for statistical creativity has slowly waned. It has increasingly embraced the ill-fitting international standard. But this global standard risks creating a skewed image of South Africa’s labour market woes. Complacency and poorly crafted policies may be the result.

Waning appetite for creativity

There are a number of problems with sticking to narrow, global definitions of “unemployment”, “job searching” or “industry” in the South African context.

For instance, the spatial legacies of apartheid mean that for many South Africans, industrial jobs are hundreds of miles removed from where they live. Many people don’t actively look for jobs because they know all too well there are none to be found anywhere near. For all intents and purposes, they are unemployed, and in a particularly hopeless situation. But they would not pass the official International Labour Organisation definition – and so they drop out of the stats.

In rural areas, many people – and women in particular – labour on the land to grow their own food. They might greatly prefer a salaried job to escape poverty. But their hand-to-mouth existence may prohibit the luxury of an extensive “job search”. They, too, would fail the statistical litmus test.

Simply put, international unemployment standards would ignore a big part of South Africa’s labour market problems. This would do an injustice to women and the black population, in particular.

The other problem with existing definitions is that nuance tends to fall by the wayside. Take “discouraged work seeker”. It’s an ambiguous category. Whether you qualify depends on your own judgement: maybe you don’t look for a job actively, but would you like one. Not everyone answering “no” is voluntarily jobless. And people might answer “yes” even though they indeed lack personal effort to find work.

Such vagaries are at odds, however, with the exactness that’s expected from statistics. Statistics privilege easy-to-quantify indicators, and important nuances disappear.

Bold creativity needed

This tendency to ignore soft, hard-to-measure issues is amplified by politicians who happily pounce on statistics that displease them.

Statistics South Africa has over the years often been criticised – unfairly, we think – for unemployment figures that tried to paint a more realistic picture. Yet less than rock-solid statistics have invited the charge that Stats SA would inflate the numbers intentionally, or otherwise manipulate them.

Once Stats SA narrowed the definition, criticism came from the other side – in this case the political opposition. To safeguard its credibility, the agency had little other option than to seek refuge in an international definition that would withstand local criticism, even if it fails to do local circumstances justice.

South Africa faces a genuine dilemma in its statistics. It is impossible to capture the complex ills of its economy and society in single headline figures. Such numbers, and the colourful graphs they generate, ready to be tweeted, are tempting. But all too often, embracing this strategy biases the numbers against people who fall between the cracks.

Our research suggests that the country’s statisticians should be bold and paint a picture that does justice to the colourful quilt that is the “rainbow nation”. And politicians have a duty to respect these efforts if they are genuinely committed to effective policies.

When the new South Africa was born in the mid-1990s, it was carried by a spirit of daring and breaking the mould. May that spirit – even in a field as boring as statistics – prevail in the future, as well.The Conversation