The province in South Africa on the verge of having more people unemployed than working

 ·24 Jun 2024

The Eastern Cape is on track to be the second province in South Africa with more unemployed people than working people—the first being the North-West province—which is causing rising tensions in some parts of the province.

The latest Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QFLS), published by Statistics South Africa in February), shows that the official unemployment increased by 0.8% from 32.1% in the fourth quarter of 2023 to 32.9% in the first quarter of 2024.

According to the data, the number of unemployed persons increased by 330,000 to 8.2 million over the same quarter.

While the official employment rate sits at almost 33%, some provinces are far worse off than others.

The Western Cape has the lowest unemployment rate (standard definition) in South Africa at 21.4%, meaning it has the most people working versus unemployed in the country.

By contrast, the Eastern Cape has consistently been above the average official unemployment rate over the last ten years.

However, when considering the broader definition of unemployment, which includes discouraged job seekers, the situation is much more dire for most provinces in South Africa.

The extended unemployment rate in South Africa’s provinces ranges from 26% to 54%. According to the expanded definition, the Western Cape is the only province with a rate below 30%.

One province, the North West, has more adults out of work and not looking for work than those who are employed, with an unemployment rate of 53.6%.

The Eastern Cape closely follows, with an unemployment rate of 49.1%.

This means the Eastern Cape is less than 1% away from joining the North West as having more unemployed people than working people.

This reality has already resulted in rising tensions in parts of the province.

The high unemployment rate in the Nelson Mandela Bay metro area in the Eastern Cape has led to intense job competition between residents and foreign nationals.

Local residents feel disadvantaged as foreign nationals often offer cheap labour, making it difficult for locals to secure job opportunities.

Conversely, foreign nationals believe that offering inexpensive labour increases their chances of finding employment as outsiders in the area.

Michael Bagraim

According to Labour lawyer Michael Bagraim, blaming foreigners for the majority of the problems is misguided.

He said foreign nationals—legal and illegal— make up less than 1% of the labour force. “Unfortunately, this group of people is just an easy scapegoat,” he said.

However, Bagraim added that South Africa still has problems related to foreigners.

“The borders are mismanaged and porous, and the Department of Employment and Labour has neglected its inspectorate duties, with little being done to manage who is and isn’t meant to be employed,” he said.

He also said that employers share the responsibility and should not employ anyone not registered or undocumented in South Africa, but again, there needs to be enforcement.

Bagraim explained, however, that foreign nationals are a vital part of the labour force and often include highly qualified individuals who contribute positively to the economy.

Nevertheless, long queues of job seekers waiting for temporary job opportunities have become a common sight at busy street corners, especially in the Eastern Cape.

In response, the Department of Employment and Labour has called on unemployed South Africans to register on its database to increase their chances of finding work.

“Registering will allow us [the Department of Labour] to refer job seekers to our stakeholders looking to fill positions across the country, whether it be formal or informal work,” said the department’s spokesperson, Trevor Ramncwana.

Read: What you need to earn to live a ‘decent’ life in South Africa

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