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Does the Western Cape province account for 98% of all new employment in South Africa? Why the DA’s jobs claim is misleading (and outdated)

As the only one of South Africa’s nine provinces that it governs, the DA is often keen to promote its record in the Western Cape. But sometimes the numbers do not tell the whole story.

This article is more than 11 months old

  • According to the data, employment across South Africa increased by 169,000 jobs between October and December 2022 compared to the previous quarter. For the Western Cape, the increase was 167,000 jobs – or about 98.8% of the national total.

  • However, experts say that comparing growth from quarter to quarter, rather than year to year, is unhelpful because employment numbers are seasonal and these changes affect some provinces more than others.

  • More recent data, from the first quarter of 2023, shows the Western Cape in a less flattering light, but DA leader John Steenhuisen has continued to repeat the older figures and has not always put them in context.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) is South Africa’s largest opposition party. In recent press releases, social media posts, and interviews, the party has regularly repeated the claim that “98% of all net new jobs in the last quarter of 2022 were created in the DA-run Western Cape”.

Of South Africa’s nine provinces, the Western Cape is the only one not governed by the ruling African National Congress (ANC). 

DA leader John Steenhuisen most recently repeated the claim in a 25 May 2023 interview for the BBC podcast Hard Talk with Stephen Sackur. 

While there is some truth to the claim, the statistic being shared is misleading, and, ­more importantly, out of date.

So what’s behind this figure, and what does it mean?

DA not comparing apples to apples

We contacted the DA to ask about their use of this statistic, but had not received a response at the time of writing.

In a 3 March press release, however, the party explained that the 98% figure was calculated using data from Statistics South Africa (Stats SA), the country’s statistical agency.

To record employment numbers, Stats SA uses the quarterly labour force survey (QLFS), a survey of South African households conducted four times a year. It collects information on the labour market participation of people aged 15 and older. 

In its survey for the last quarter of 2022, covering October to December, Stats SA found that the number of people employed in South Africa had increased by about 169,000 since the previous quarter. The number of people employed in the Western Cape increased by about 167,000.

While 167,000 is roughly 98.8% of 169,000, these figures hide a lot of nuance.

“It must be taken into consideration that, even though there were five provinces, including the Western Cape, that created employment, there were four provinces that lost employment in the same period,” Desiree Manamela, chief director of labour statistics at Stats SA, told Africa Check.

It is possible for employment to fall from quarter to quarter, as it did in four provinces in the last quarter of 2022, and it is possible for one province to contribute more than 100% of “net new jobs”. It is even possible for multiple provinces to contribute more than 100% of net new jobs in a quarter.

For example, if unemployment fell by 100,000 in each of seven provinces, but rose by 400,000 in each of two provinces, then national employment would have increased by 100,000 people (800,000 minus 700,000). In this scenario, the two provinces which saw employment increases would have contributed 400% of the 100,000 “net new jobs”.

If one of these two provinces were compared to the other eight, those eight provinces would have contributed a net loss of 300,000 jobs, despite the fact that one saw huge growth.

Furthermore, “the QLFS does not use the term ‘net new jobs’ as we do not have an official definition on this”, Manamela told Africa Check. Instead, Stats SA calculates the percentage change in employment within a province.

By this measure, the Western Cape saw a 6.9% increase in the number of people employed in the province from July to September and October to December 2022. This was the highest increase, followed by the North West province, with an increase of 2.6%, and the Northern Cape province, with 3.6%.

But even this is not a good measure for comparison.

Manamela told Africa Check that Stats SA does not recommend using quarter-to-quarter changes for comparison, as they are not adjusted for seasonal trends in employment. 

“For example,” she said, “the December quarter is usually marked by an increase in jobs in the trade industry.” Seasonal changes like this can affect some provinces more than others.

Instead, Manamela recommended using year-on-year changes for comparison. By this measure, the Western Cape experienced the second largest increase in employment (14.7%) of all provinces between the fourth quarter of 2021 and 2022, but no province had lost jobs. The largest increase (27.0%) was in the Northern Cape.

Neva Makgetla, a senior economist at the economic research organisation Trade and Industrial Policy Strategies, told Africa Check: “Stats SA publishes a database that averages the quarters for each year, called Labour Market Dynamics, that seeks to address these issues.”

These figures have not been published for 2021 and 2022, but Makgetla’s own calculations, based on data from the QLFS, showed that the Western Cape experienced an average quarter-to-quarter growth in the number of people employed of 7%, while South Africa as a whole saw growth of 6%.

How pie charts can be deceiving 

On 28 February 2023, the DA published a pie chart showing 169,000 jobs, of which 167,000 were in the Western Cape and 2,000 in the “ANC-run provinces”. This is a misleading way of presenting this information. 

Pie charts, and particularly three-dimensional pie charts, such as the one used by the DA, have long been considered as an ineffective way of displaying information. And while they have their uses, a pie chart is particularly unhelpful in this situation.

Pie charts can’t display negative contributions, such as job losses. A much more helpful graph is a bar chart, like the one we’ve created below. This not only allows for comparisons between provinces, but can also show negative contributions to a total.

The DA’s pie chart masks the fact that while the eight ANC-run provinces together had a net gain of around 2,000 jobs, provinces such as the North West and Eastern Cape had employment gains ten times higher.

More recent data is available 

The misuse of statistics aside, the DA has not updated its claims to reflect the latest employment data.

On 16 May, Stats SA released the QLFS for the period January to March 2023. These were the latest figures available, Makgetla told Africa Check. They showed that the number of people employed in the country increased by 258,000. The figure for the Western Cape was 62,000. 

Quarter-to-quarter, the Western Cape saw a 2.4% increase in employment. This puts it behind Limpopo, which had the largest percentage increase of 5.4%, and the Eastern Cape, at 3.0%.

Year-on-year, the Western Cape has seen the country’s largest increase, of 15.7%, followed by the Eastern Cape (9.9%) and Limpopo (9.7%).

Despite these figures being available on 16 May, Steenhuisen repeated the claim in a live broadcast on the DA’s YouTube channel on 24 May. He did so again in his interview for Hard Talk, which was released on 25 May, but appears to to have been recorded on 24 May. (Note: Africa Check has contacted the BBC and the DA to ask when the podcast was recorded.)

In a press release in June 2023, the DA was clear that the statistic applied only to the months October to December 2022, and not to the most recent financial quarter. But Steenhuisen also repeated the claim on Twitter in June, quoting his own address to parliament during a budget vote debate on 31 May. The older stat may be more flattering to the DA, but by failing to update it, the party is cherry-picking data.

As Makgetla told us, employment figures “fluctuate considerably quarter on quarter”. By focusing only on the more impressive quarters, the DA is leaving out crucial context.

This isn’t the first time that the DA has used outdated employment statistics. The party’s 2019 election manifesto included a claim that “50% of all new jobs in South Africa, in the past year, were created in the Western Cape”. We rated this claim as misleading because it did not reflect the most recent data available at the time of the manifesto’s publication.

Historical factors should be considered, expert says

Data aside, there are other factors which affect employment figures across provinces, Neva Makgetla, a senior economist at the economic research organisation Trade and Industrial Policy Strategies, told Africa Check.

“The Western Cape inherited far better infrastructure, social services and education levels than the rest of the country because it did not contain any labour-sending areas or a significant African population,” Makgetla said. 

“Notoriously, the apartheid state directed its spending away from Africans, in general, and the historic labour sending regions, in general. Since long before 1994, the province had a higher employment rate than the rest of the country as a result."

Conclusion: DA’s frequent claim leaves out crucial context

South Africa’s main opposition party the Democratic Alliance has regularly claimed that it created 98% of all “net new jobs” in South Africa, without always clarifying which quarter of the year it was referring to. 

While their calculation for the last quarter of 2022 is mathematically correct, it isn’t helpful in this context. Stats SA recommended using year-on-year changes in employment to compare provinces. These figures show the Western Cape had the second largest increase in employment (14.7%) of any province between the fourth quarter of 2021 and 2022. 

More recent data is also available. Between January to March 2022 and January to March 2023, the number of people employed in the Western Cape increased by 15.7%.

Due to the large fluctuations in employment figures from one quarter to the next, it is important to put numbers in context so as to accurately inform public debate.

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What would probably have been more valuable to this discourse would be to warn the public when interpreting percentage changes that the base of the percentage change is very important. An increase from 1 to 2 in percentage terms is a 100 percent increase. A 100 to 105 increase in percentage terms is only a 5 percent increase. However, in terms of numbers, 5 more employment opportunities is far better than only 1 despite the percentage being lower. Comparing percentages with each other when the base numbers on which the percentages are calculated can give very skewed interpretations.

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