South Africa faces multifaceted challenges, a decline in unemployment, as proclaimed by Stats SA, appears less like a triumph and more like a misdirection. The true measure of economic health lies not only in statistical acrobatics but also in an honest acknowledgement of the complex interplay of factors that shape the nation’s workforce.

By Mbangwa Xaba

In the tumultuous landscape of South Africa, where the struggle for economic stability is as palpable as the sweeping winds across its diverse terrains, recent events have thrust the nation into a disconcerting paradox.

On one hand, Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) proudly boasts a marginal decline in unemployment figures – a glimmer of hope for a nation yearning for economic reprieve.

On the other hand, the Eastern Cape Department of Health, reports that 1,722 children under the age of five in the province were newly diagnosed with severe acute malnutrition between August 2022 and September 2023.

Of these, 114 died – 101 of severe acute malnutrition and 13 of moderate malnutrition. The South African Human Rights Commission has entered the fray as a grim reality – a surge in poverty slaps the nation on the face with South Africa’s children paying the heavy price.

Mark Twain’s timeless adage, “lies, damn lies, and statistics,” reverberates in the air as the nation grapples with the incongruity between statistical triumphs and the stark humanitarian crises unfolding on the ground.

The alleged decline in unemployment becomes an enigmatic veil concealing a deeper, more unsettling truth – the insignificance of this statistical victory against the backdrop of a society plagued by joblessness, despair, and the harrowing consequences of poverty.

The recent arrest of a mother in the Eastern Cape, accused of killing her five children to “save them from poverty,” serves as a tragic testament to the severity of the issue. This horrifying incident is not merely an isolated event but a symptom of a systemic problem that statistics alone fail to capture. While we applaud a slight dip in the unemployment rate, the reality is that it does little to assuage the anguish of those who have lost not only their jobs but their homes, their dignity, and in the most heart-wrenching cases – their lives.

The subtle dance of numbers on employment charts cannot disguise the ominous shadows cast by rising repossessions of properties – the forfeiture of cars and homes, tangible symbols of dreams shattered and aspirations obliterated.

The narrative of declining unemployment conveniently omits the tales of families torn asunder, livelihoods obliterated, and the profound impact of economic upheaval on the mental and emotional well-being of a nation.

As the South African elections loom on the horizon, a discerning eye must be cast upon these seemingly optimistic statistics. Is the marginal decline in unemployment a genuine triumph or a strategic political ploy, an attempt to divert attention from the surging tide of poverty and despair sweeping across the nation? The scent of a political rat lingers in the air, prompting us to question the motives behind the selective presentation of data.

Stats SA says the unemployment number dropped by 72,000 to 7.8 million.

“The number of employed persons increased by 399,000 to 16.7 million in the third quarter of 2023 compared to 16.3 million in the second quarter of 2023. Additionally, the number of people who were not economically active for reasons other than discouragement decreased by 160,000 to 13.1 million, while the number of discouraged work-seekers decreased by 26,000 in the third quarter of 2023 compared to the second quarter of 2023,” reads the Stats SA report.

This, they say, “resulted in a net decrease of 186,000 in the not economically active population. The expanded definition of the unemployment rate also dropped by 0.9% to 41.2% in Q3 2023.”

Optimistically, I would, like COSATU, be quick to “welcome the decrease in the expanded unemployment rate.” I too would most certainly be inclined to say, “Any decrease in the unemployment rate is welcome relief,” and  to see  an additional 399 000 jobs “in a fragile economy” as “positive news.”

But I just cannot help but be sceptical in the face of an array of concurrent crises that seem to cast shadows of doubt over this seemingly optimistic narrative.

The nation is grappling not only with the persistent issue of power outages that are decimating small to medium enterprises but also with the rapid deterioration of state-owned entities and the devastating impact of unfavourable weather conditions on the agricultural sector.

The economic fallout from these weather-related disasters cannot be underestimated, and Stats SA’s narrow focus on unemployment statistics fails to capture the depth of the crisis faced by those whose livelihoods are intricately tied to the land.

As if this were not enough, a recent avian virus has wreaked havoc, leading to a crisis in chicken and egg supplies. Amid these storms, Stats SA’s proclamation of declining unemployment appears more like a mirage than a genuine reflection of the nation’s economic health.

The persistent power outages that have become an unfortunate hallmark of South Africa’s infrastructure woes paint a contrasting picture to the rosy unemployment figures.

Rolling blackouts, a consequence of a struggling energy sector, have stifled economic productivity, led to job losses, and eroded the confidence of both local and international investors.

How then, in the face of these power struggles, can Stats SA confidently declare a decline in unemployment? The reality on the ground suggests that the employment landscape is far from stable; instead, it is marred by the flickering uncertainty of power grids.

In the pursuit of an accurate and compassionate understanding of the South African economic landscape, we must transcend the allure of statistics.

The human cost of unemployment, repossessions, and the insidious rise of poverty cannot be encapsulated in numbers alone. It demands a holistic examination of the societal fabric, acknowledging the stories untold, the lives lost, and the collective yearning for a more equitable and just future.

We need a more nuanced and comprehensive dialogue surrounding the true state of our nation.

The urgency lies not in celebrating statistical victories but in addressing the root causes of our societal malaise, ensuring that no more lives are sacrificed on the altar of poverty and desperation.

Only then can we hope to usher in an era where the pursuit of prosperity transcends the realm of numbers, embracing the inherent dignity and well-being of every South African.

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