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'Highest ever' unemployment rate? Fact-checking two claims from the ANC's 110th birthday party

President Cyril Ramaphosa had strong words about South Africa’s “already precarious economic situation” but is the leader of the country and the ruling party correct about current unemployment figures?

  • Ramaphosa spoke in celebration of the 110th anniversary of the founding of the ANC but didn’t mince words about South Africa’s economic woes. 

  • His claim about job losses since the start of the pandemic ignores the most recent data. Official data shows over 2 million less employed people - not 1.5 million.

  • The president is correct that South Africa’s unemployment rates are the highest they’ve been since accurate and comparable records have been kept.

On 8 January 2022 South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress,  marked its 110th anniversary and Cyril Ramaphosa, president of South Africa and of the ANC, delivered a commemorative statement.

“The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated our already precarious economic situation,” he told crowds at a rally in Polokwane in Limpopo province.

“In a short space of time around 1.5 million people lost their jobs since the start of the pandemic, and the unemployment rate we now have is at its highest ever.”

Are these two claims correct? We checked.

Claim

“... around 1.5 million people lost their jobs since the start of the pandemic”

Verdict

Incorrect

The World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic on 11 March 2020. The South African government declared a national state of disaster to combat the pandemic on 15 March 2020 and eight days later implemented a nationwide lockdown.

The country is currently at lockdown level one and the state of disaster is still in place. Gatherings remain limited and it is still mandatory to wear a mask in public. 

Ruling party relies on Stats SA data

Statistics South Africa (Stats SA), the country's national data agency, collects data on unemployment which it publishes in its quarterly labour force survey (QLFS).

Africa Check contacted the ANC to ask what Ramaphosa’s source had been for the claim that 1.5 million jobs had been lost since the start of the pandemic. 

An ANC spokesperson told us: “Job losses due to Covid were calculated by comparing the number of people in employment – as reflected in the quarterly labour force survey – before the outbreak of the pandemic in Q1 [quarter 1] 2020 (16.4 million) to those employed in Q2 [quarter 2] 2021 (14.9 million), when most (but not all) of the COVID-related economic restrictions had been lifted.”

This is a mostly accurate calculation based on the data cited. The difference between the time periods was 1,441,000. However, the time frames compared do not reflect the most recent data. 

Impact of ‘July unrest’ must be considered, says ANC

The latest edition of the QLFS from July to September 2021 recorded 14,282,000 people employed. It was released on 30 November 2021. This is a reduction of 2,101,000 employed people when compared January to March 2020.

We raised this with the ANC and they responded by saying that “the general view is that this figure is more likely to reflect the impact of the July unrest than Covid”.

This refers to several days of looting, protests and violence, mainly in South Africa’s Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal provinces in July 2021. Nearly 2,000 people were arrested and many businesses were looted during the unrest.

Most recent data should not be ignored

Africa Check spoke to Dr Andrew Kerr, associate professor at the School of Economics and DataFirst at the University of Cape Town

He thought the observed decline in employment was due to both the impact of the pandemic and the July unrest, without any clear indication of which had been more impactful.

“I don’t think there is a general view,” he said. 

Kerr also pointed to employment rates by province. He said: “Mpumalanga and Limpopo have the largest declines in employment rates, rather than KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, [where] we’d expect these to have larger declines if it was due to unrest.” 

But he said that for a number of reasons, this wasn’t enough evidence to indicate whether unrest or the pandemic had been more impactful.

Dr Thabi Leoka, an economist and chief executive of Naha Investments, said that “for accuracy, the party should factor in quarter 3 of 2021 where a significant amount of people lost their jobs”.

She said that although data would inevitably reflect both the impact of the pandemic and unrest, it should not be ignored.

Claim

“The unemployment rate we now have is at its highest ever.”

Verdict

Correct

In Stats SA’s quarterly labour force survey the data agency releases a narrow unemployment rate. This records the percentage of South Africa’s labour force which is able to work and actively looking for work but not currently employed. Stats SA also releases a broad definition, which includes those referred to as “discouraged job-seekers” – those not actively looking for work.

The first QLFS was published in 2008. The most recent was published on 30 November 2021. It covers the third quarter of the 2021 financial year, the months July to September 2021.

The unemployment rate recorded in the third quarter 2021 QLFS is the highest ever recorded by the survey, whether judged by the broad (34.9%), or the narrow (46.6%) definition of unemployment. Unemployment has been on the rise for several editions of the QLFS.

Unemployment rates can only be compared as far back as 2001

Leoka told Africa Check that the QLFS is typically the only survey considered when discussing unemployment. 

“When we say the highest recorded, we mean since 2008,” she said.

According to Leoka, historical data cannot be accurately compared to more recent surveys. 

Before the QLFS began, Stats SA conducted a twice-yearly labour force survey (LFS) which ran from 2000 until 2007. The results of this survey have been revised to make September LFS data from the years 2001 to 2007 comparable with the newer QLFS. 

The highest narrow unemployment rate recorded by the LFS was 28.4%, in September 2008. This is still lower than the 2021 quarter 3 narrow unemployment rate of 34.9%.

Before the LFS, unemployment was recorded from 1995 to 1999 by the October Household Survey (OHS). This survey has not been revised to match the QLFS and so may not be accurately comparable to later surveys. 

It recorded its highest narrow unemployment rate in 1998 at 25.2% and a broad unemployment rate of 37.5%. (The 1995 OHS only includes the broad definition, at 29%, and estimates that this fell from 33% in 1994.)

Further Reading

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