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YOU ASKED: Has South Africa’s public works programme created 14 million jobs in 20 years?

With unemployment in South Africa at 32.1%, most political parties have been keen to talk up their ability to create jobs ahead of the May 2024 elections. But do the ruling ANC’s triumphant claims about a flagship programme stand up to scrutiny?

South Africa will hold national and provincial elections on 29 May 2024. With an official unemployment rate of 32.1%, most political parties have job creation at the top of their agendas. 

In an April 2024 interview on South African news channel eNCA, anchor Dan Moyane asked Africa Check to investigate a particular employment claim – that the government’s expanded public works programme, or EPWP, had created 14 million jobs since 2004. 

As requested, we’ve done the “number crunching”, but also looked at the history of the programme.

Public employment in South Africa

The EPWP is South Africa’s main public employment programme. It was launched in 2004, to provide “poverty and income relief through temporary work for the unemployed to carry out socially useful activities”. 

Celebrating the 20th anniversary of the programme in 2024, president Cyril Ramaphosa claimed that the EPWP had created a total of 14 million “work opportunities”. Ramaphosa also leads the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

A “work opportunity” may not be what comes to mind when you think of “a job”, but it counts as employment by many definitions, including those used by Statistics South Africa, the country’s data agency, and the International Labour Organization.

Dr Kate Philip, programme lead for the Presidential Employment Stimulus, a public employment programme separate from the EPWP, previously told Africa Check that the term “work opportunity” is used to distinguish between opportunities provided by specific public employment programmes and “‘jobs’ in the wider labour market”.

These work opportunities are often relatively short-term and do not offer the same benefits and pay as other public sector employment. For example, the EPWP pays a minimum wage of R15.16 per hour, which is lower than the national minimum wage of R27.58 per hour. However, the EPWP sees these opportunities as a vital way of providing income and alleviating poverty for the otherwise unemployed.

Creating 14 million jobs in 20 years?

To have created 14 million opportunities in the 20 years since its inception, the EPWP would have had to create an average of around 700,000 opportunities per year. How plausible is this?

In 2008, four years after its launch, the EPWP celebrated the milestone of creating over 1 million work opportunities, a target originally set for 2009. Although this exceeded expectations, this is not a rate that would create 14 million jobs in 20 years.

The pace has accelerated in the years since. In the 2022/23 financial year (April 2022 to March 2023), the programme provided a total of 990,686 work opportunities, and in some years has provided over a million opportunities in a single year. At the time of the fourth, five-year phase of the EPWP (the years 2019 to 2024), the programme had set a target of creating just over 5 million work opportunities over this period.

But was this target met, and was the improvement fast enough?

Ramaphosa misses opportunity to claim higher figure

The Department of Public Works, which oversees the EPWP, publishes quarterly updates on the number of work opportunities, but does not keep a running total, and has not released a public report on the overall status of the EPWP since 2013.

Africa Check contacted the department, which provided its confirmed tallies of annual EPWP work opportunities since the programme began. These included currently unpublished totals for 2023/24.  

These figures show that the EPWP has provided a total of 15,204,632 work opportunities.

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If anything, Ramaphosa missed a campaigning opportunity to claim an even higher figure. 

In 2024, the ANC pledged to “expand public employment to sustain 2.5 million work opportunities”. We discussed this promise in our April 2024 review of the party’s manifesto.

The EPWP is not the only public employment programme in the country. The newer Presidential Employment Stimulus created 1.6 million new work opportunities between its launch in October 2020 and December 2023.

Beyond the numbers

It’s difficult to assess the impact of the EPWP based on numbers alone. 

Dr Bianca Chigbu, a sociology lecturer at the University of Fort Hare, told Africa Check that while EPWP work opportunities are often temporary, they provide immediate financial support to disadvantaged and low-income households, “allowing them to satisfy basic necessities and alleviate poverty”. 

In addition, the EPWP often provides participants with training that enhances their employability. 

“The EPWP has been a ray of light for a lot of people, giving them a short-term financial safety net and enabling them to get skills training in fields like environmental management, healthcare, and construction,” said Chigbu. 

However, the EPWP isn’t perfect, and improving and expanding it won’t be easy.

Chigbu pointed out that research by organisations such as the World Bank had found that the EPWP was a “key intervention” in alleviating poverty. However, the bank also found that participants were “likely to return to unemployment” after the work opportunities ended. 

Chigbu said that “structural economic issues” still posed major challenges in “transitioning beneficiaries to formal employment”.

Commenting on the ruling party’s plans to expand the programme, Chigbu said that “the ANC needs more financing, more solid alliances, and targeted sector-specific growth” to succeed. 

She said that it was “critical” for the programme to promote sustainable development by focusing on “green jobs”, targeting beneficiaries from “marginalised populations, including women, youth, and people with disabilities”, and working with the wider labour market.

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