The one city in South Africa that beat the rest on jobs for the last 10 years

 ·11 Jun 2024

The City of Cape Town has consistently beaten South Africa’s other seven major metros in growing jobs over the last decade – while eThekwini currently has the lowest unemployment rate, according to the latest data from Stats SA.

South Africa’s eight metropolitan areas serve as the focal points of the nation’s economic vitality, each showcasing distinctive traits and emerging patterns.

These metros, namely Johannesburg, Cape Town, eThekwini, Ekurhuleni, Tshwane, Mangaung, Nelson Mandela Bay, and Buffalo City, collectively harbour a significant portion of the country’s formal employment, accounting for around two-thirds of the country’s workforce.

To explain these unique characteristics and evolving trends, the Spatial Economic Activity Data South Africa (SeadSA) 2023 Cities Economic Outlook provides a comprehensive array of South Africa’s economic metrics.

These encompass employment and business statistics segmented by industry, wage levels, demographics (including gender and age distribution), export orientation, and firm scale.

Below provides a brief overview of just some of the numerous key findings.

“Uneven performance amongst metro economies”

Despite the sluggish national economic climate, employment growth rates across metros varied around the national average.

SeadSA outlines that there has been an “uneven performance amongst metro economies” over the past decade.

“A key message is that all metros have struggled to create and sustain new jobs in any number,” although some sport better than others, said SeadSA.

Looking at StatsSA Quarterly Labour Force Surveys for Quarter 1 2016 vs 2024, it showed the official unemployment rate in each of the metros as:

Cape Town21.1%23.9%+2.8%
Nelson Mandela Bay33.2%32.4%-0.8%
Buffalo City24.1%33.8%+9.7%
Source: StatsSA Quarterly Labour Force Surveys

While eThekwini has the lowest unemployment rate in the country as of Q1 2024, this comes with the caveat that only 61.2% of the population are economically active (versus 71.4% in Cape Town) with a 47.8% absorption rate (versus 54.3% in Cape Town).

Regardless, all provinces still exhibit high levels of unemployment.

“This is not surprising considering the lacklustre performance of the national economy over the past decade,” the report added.

Although all but Nelson Mandela Bay have seen unemployment rates increase given subsequent population increases, numerous metros have seen employment numbers (formal job growth) increase.

Cape Town, Tshwane, and eThekwini emerged as the top performers in formal job growth from 2014 to 2022. Cape Town notably achieved the highest growth, with a 21% increase in employment pre-pandemic, reflecting a compound annual growth rate of 3.3%.

In contrast, Johannesburg exhibited notably weak employment growth, with a mere 5% increase by 2020, equivalent to less than 1% annually. “Given Johannesburg’s status as the country’s largest city and employment hub, its lacklustre performance is very concerning,” said SeadSA.

Conversely, Nelson Mandela Bay recorded the poorest performance among all metros, witnessing a slight net loss of jobs over the same period.

Although all the metros were hit hard by the pandemic, Tshwane was the most shielded, with the report citing that this is probably because of its higher share of government jobs.

“Overall, there appears to be no obvious relationship between metro employment growth and city size or geographical region,” said SeadSA.

Distinctive features of these metro economies

SeadSA says that understanding the unique contributions and strengths of each metro is crucial for effective local economic and industrial policy formulation.

According to the report, the distinctive features of the metro economies are:

Johannesburg is both the most diversified metro in terms of the composition of it industries, although it is labeled as the ‘financial centre‘, of the country as “finance makes a much bigger contribution to the local economy than it does in other cities,” said SeadSA.

This is because it boast a significant contribution from finance to its local economy. It hosts the headquarters of major financial institutions such as banks, pension funds, and insurance companies, along with the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) and key business services like ICT and professional services.

Ekurhuleni is known for ‘manufacturing-logistics‘, with the East Rand formerly known as ‘the workshop of the country.’

Manufacturing is still the largest employer in the metro, with prominent industrial districts such as Germiston, Boksburg, Nigel and Springs. The transport sector plays also an important support function, including airport-logistics in Kempton Park near OR Tambo International Airport, one of Africa’s busiest.

Tshwane is known for ‘national government and professional services’, serving as the administrative capital, housing most national departments and benefiting from public sector activities like research councils and foreign embassies.

“Hence it benefits from many recession-proof public-sector activities, including research councils and foreign embassies [and] various other industries feed off, or are funded by, the government, including teaching hospitals and universities,” said SeadSA.

Cape Town boasts a ‘diversified tourism-centric‘ economy, and is “therefore difficult to summarise,” said SeadSA.

“There are clear strengths in retail and tourism-related activities… with some of South Africa’s largest retailers have their headquarters in Cape Town,” including Shoprite, Pick n Pay, Woolworths, Foschini, Pep, Truworths and online vendor Takealot, it added.

The city is also the country’s second largest centre of financial services, after Johannesburg.

eThekwini is pivotal for ‘manufacturing-logistics’, boasting a strong and central manufacturing sector, particularly in Durban.

Although grappling various challenges, “the Port of Durban has since become a major anchor of the busy logistics corridor to Gauteng,” said SeadSA,

The metro is also emerging as a hub for less-skilled tourism and administrative services.

Nelson Mandela Bay is recognised as an ‘automotive center‘ “known for its automotive cluster, including various foreign-owned vehicle manufacturers and related suppliers, such as Volkswagen, Ford, Goodyear, Bridgestone, Isuzu, Continental Tyre, Shatterprufe and, more recently, First Automotive Works.

The report notes that the metro has struggled to diversify its manufacturing sector despite substantial investment in infrastructure such as the Coega Industrial Development Zone (IDZ).

Buffalo City is known for its ‘provincial government’ presence, hosting the Eastern Cape government and the largest share of workers in government of any metro.

“Besides the civil service, East London has some manufacturing capabilities including Mercedes-Benz, Daimler Chrysler and several upstream suppliers in the East London IDZ,” said SeadSA.

Mangaung, the smallest metro, is known for specialising in ‘health and education.’

It hosts the Free State provincial government headquarters and stands out for its high concentration of healthcare and education professionals.

It boasts a rich history of educational institutions, including two universities, and a strong healthcare infrastructure, with three private hospitals, multiple day-clinics, an increasing number of medical research institutions, and numerous public health facilities.

The full report can be accessed here.

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