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Ahead of South Africa’s November local government elections, we look at the country’s unemployment figures, which are among the highest measured in the world.

This article is more than 2 years old

South Africa is set to hold municipal elections on 1 November 2021. Citizens will elect representatives for district, metropolitan and local municipal councils across the country’s nine provinces.

Jobs are a hot button issue in South Africa, where unemployment rates are very high. Local political party the Economic Freedom Fighters has vowed to address unemployment by abolishing tenders and employing youth to perform jobs such as municipal maintenance work

In this factsheet, we answer some of the frequently asked questions about unemployment. 

1. How is unemployment defined?

Unemployment is measured in two ways.

The narrow or strict definition of unemployment includes those who are unemployed and have taken active steps to look for work. The broad or expanded definition of unemployment includes discouraged job seekers. This refers to people who are able to work but are unable to find work suited to their skills or have lost any hope of finding a job.

Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) publishes regular statistics on employment in South Africa. The Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS) for April to June 2021 estimated a strict unemployment rate of 34.4%. The broad unemployment rate was 44.4%.

This is the highest unemployment level recorded since the QLFS began in 2008, when the strict rate stood at 21.9%.

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2. What metros have the highest unemployment rates?

There are eight metropolitan municipalities in South Africa. These are larger municipalities centred around the country’s major cities.

The metro that recorded the lowest unemployment rate in 2021 was Mangaung, in the Free State, at 23%. The Eastern Cape’s Nelson Mandela Bay metro recorded the highest, at 39.8%.

The highest expanded unemployment rate was recorded by the City of Johannesburg at 43.6%. The lowest was the City of Cape Town (29.8%) in the Western Cape. 

3. What is the racial breakdown of unemployment in South Africa?

Employment figures in South Africa show a stark difference along racial lines. 

In the second quarter of 2021, 38.2% of black people were unemployed according to the narrow definition. The figure was 28.5% for coloured people, 19.5% for Indian/Asian people and 8.6% for white people.

4. What is the youth unemployment rate?

In South Africa, “youth” is defined as people between the ages of 15 and 34 years. Earlier this year, Stats SA said that the “burden of unemployment is concentrated among the youth” and that the youth unemployment rate is high irrespective of education level. 

The latest data shows that the unemployment rate for youths aged 15 to 24 years was 64.4% and among those aged 25 to 34 it was 42.9%. The expanded rate for 15- to 24-year-olds was 74.8% and among youths aged 25 to 34 it was 52.3%.

Factors behind the high youth unemployment rate include job requirements that specify higher education and prior work experience. 

“Employers often prefer to employ those with previous work experience and a higher level of education. Unfortunately for the youth, lack of work experience is a stumbling block that results in them finding it hard to secure employment,” said Stats SA.

5. How does South Africa rank globally?

Comparing unemployment rates globally can be complicated by differing definitions of unemployment and methods of data collection. Recent data also isn’t available for all countries.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) is a United Nations agency that looks at labour standards across the globe and produces estimates of unemployment. They use a similar definition of unemployment to Stats SA and consider people unemployed “if they are actively searching for work and are available to work”.

According to the organisation’s latest estimates, South Africa had the highest unemployment rate in the world. Djibouti was ranked second and the Occupied Palestinian Territory was third.

Editor's Note (21/02/2022): A previous version of this report cited outdated youth unemployment data. We have corrected it to reference the most recent data available at the time of publishing. We apologise for the error.

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