How South Africa created over one million meaningful jobs at the height of the pandemic

By Yogesh Hirdaramani

South Africa faced an unprecedented youth unemployment crisis during the Covid-19 pandemic. Dr Kate Philip, Programme Lead for Presidential Employment Stimulus in South Africa, shares with GovInsider how the country’s employment programme can provide lessons for scaling innovation during difficult times.

The Basic Education Employment Initiative has placed nearly 600,000 youths of all skill levels as school assistants in over 22,000 schools. Image: Presidential Employment Stimulus, South Africa

“How do we rapidly create meaningful work experiences that will create social value, do it at scale, and do it fast?” asks Dr Kate Philip, Programme Lead for Presidential Employment Stimulus in South Africa. This was the central question her team faced during the Covid-19 pandemic, as the country stared down the barrel end of an ever-worsening unemployment crisis with record-high joblessness.


For Dr Philip, the problem of unemployment during the pandemic was two-fold. 


First, the crisis was not a passing storm. Unemployment in South Africa is not seasonal, but a structural problem that persists even today. The country has one of the highest rates of unemployment in the world: 1 in 3 South Africans are currently unemployed, with nearly half of young people unable to get jobs according to Reuters.


Next, public employment programmes have a bad name. Often, such programmes involve hard labour that are unattractive to young people and offer little value for future employers who want to employ skilled youth with relevant work experience, says Dr Philip. 


So when President Cyril Ramaphosa earmarked 100 billion rand (around US$5.5 billion) to stimulate employment, Dr Philip’s team had to develop an employment programme that could attract and sustain participation and help alleviate South Africa’s youth unemployment crisis. Three years on, the programme has supported 1.2 million people, largely youth, from all skill levels in finding meaningful jobs. How did they do it?

1. Providing meaningful work opportunities

First, Dr Philip highlights to GovInsider that the programme sought to deliver meaningful work opportunities that would set young people up for success in the future while providing social good.


Meaningful work plays a vital role for empowering young people, says Dr Philip. Working can be a critical tool for social inclusion, giving youths the opportunity to build networks, pick up valuable skills, and self-actualise. This experience can then support them in finding successful employment or building small businesses in the future, she explains.


Placing youths in jobs that contribute to the common good can also support communities at large, she adds. Participation in programmes like early childhood development, nutrition, and combating gender-based violence can lead to positive benefits for the wider community. This is why the Presidential Employment Stimulus programme emphasised social employment and provided funds for community organisations to employ young people in critical roles. 


“We were really focused on trying to demonstrate that these kinds of programmes can offer both high value work experience and high social value creation… There are so many forms of employment that can create common good outcomes,” says Dr Philip.


For example, the fund supported the Hlanganisa Institute for Development Southern Africa in training over 2000 women as paralegals in over 150 communities. With this increased capacity, the institute is now able to manage close to 7000 gender-based violence cases a month, up from nearly 400 cases previously.


Similarly, the country’s Department of Basic Education tapped on the stimulus to place nearly 600,000 youths as school assistants in over 22,000 schools. Graduates and highly skilled youths worked on projects like developing digital tools for education, while others helped to maintain facilities and run activities like after school sports.


“The Social Employment Fund is focused on mobilising the capabilities that exist in the wider society to participate in creating work opportunities and addressing social challenges… There are all kinds of local initiatives that are really important to the functioning of society, so we try to harness that energy and amplify its efforts,” says Dr Philip to GovInsider.

2. Think at scale


Next, the programme sought to develop an institutional architecture that could enable rapid scaling.


Dr Philip explains that development programmes often focus on the success of individual projects that serve up to 1000 people. As a result, public officers tend to view scaling as a process of replicating successful projects in additional contexts. 


But in countries as diverse as South Africa, systemic impact requires an institutional architecture that can solicit and support a range of innovative projects from the ground. Rather than overdesigning projects, the team put in place a set of criteria to reflect what they wished to achieve, she says. 


For example, one criteria of the Social Employment Fund was that prospective organisations had to employ at least 1000 people to qualify. While this seemed like an insurmountable task at first, this incentivised applicants to partner with each other and develop stronger ties with other grassroots organisations to meet the threshold, thereby raising the capacity of these social programmes.


She also highlights that the school placement programme demonstrates the value of thinking at scale.


“Even in the poorest and most marginalised areas, there are schools of some kind… With our programme, every single community in the country could offer jobs and address the problem of spatial inequity when it comes to the distribution of employment,” she says.


And because these proposals were solicited from schools rather than imposed top-down, there have been high approval ratings from principals participating in the project.


Soliciting innovation from the ground also meant that the federal government did not need to task already overstretched municipalities with the additional work of developing and sustaining public employment programmes, she adds.

3. Plan for the future

Finally, such employment programmes need to help pave the way for future employment prospects for young people. This is a challenging task for a country that continues to experience high levels of structural unemployment and poor opportunities in the market, she concedes.


“What has been the case in the past is that the private sector says youth with no work experience are unemployable. What we’re trying to do is de-risk youth employment for the private sector. With young people coming out of our programmes with serious work experience, we hope to see more appetite from the private sector to employ them,” she says.


Funding for these programmes will end in 2024 and partner organisations are currently investing in upskilling their employees to ensure they remain employable. For instance, a river clean up project, Water for the Future, is partnering with the University of Johannesburg to train staff members in permaculture and aquaponics, reported Reuters.


Beyond making youths more attractive prospects for employment, the programmes also aim to give them time and space to develop their own livelihood activities.


These programmes only take up two days of work a week. For these two days, participants can receive all the benefits of participating in work, including receiving an income and building skills. For the rest of the week, they can engage in hustling activities, build small businesses, or carve their own exit strategies, she explains.


Finally, her team works closely with a sibling programme, the Presidential Youth Employment Intervention initiative, which has developed a pathway management network to help create opportunities for youths beyond work programmes. This includes a mobile app, SA Youth, that helps young people find relevant jobs geographically close to them. 


“We are trying to build whole-of-society approaches, where these programmes build partnerships beyond the public sector and crowd in ideas from all of society to tackle the problem of unemployment,” she says.


Learn more about South Africa’s Presidential Employment Stimulus initiative by visiting the Employment Stimulus Dashboard here or by reading the initiative’s latest update here.