The last time DA leader Helen Zille led a march to Cosatu house, it ended in violence. Jeremy Cronin argues that Zilles bid for a second march, which she says is to expose President Jacob Zumas manifesto promise of six million jobs as bogus, is devious on her part. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

The ANC manifesto’s focus on public works programmes is a small but integral part of job creation, writes Jeremy Cronin.

DA leader Helen Zille’s plans to march on Luthuli House, the ANC’s headquarters, have been given the green-light by the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court.

The wisdom of the whole thing has provoked considerable debate, including within the DA. However, there has been little discussion about the pretext that Zille has provided for marching.

In her statement announcing the march, she said it was intended to “expose Jacob Zuma’s manifesto promise of six million work opportunities as bogus”.

“These are not real jobs”, Zille told us with affected outrage. However, it is her posturing that is bogus and devious.

It is bogus because nowhere does the ANC election manifesto claim these are formal sector jobs. The manifesto outlines a range of initiatives to stimulate formal sector job creation, including reindustrialisation, infrastructure development, training, local beneficiation, state procurement policies and a youth wage tax incentive.

Zille’s faux outrage is devious. She claims to be the most zealous supporter of the National Development Plan, but if she had bothered to read chapter 3 she would have seen the massive scaling up of public works job opportunities is an integral part of the plan.

The DA appears to believe market-driven, economic growth on auto-pilot will solve our unemployment crisis. Let’s remember there was growth, approaching 5 percent through the second half of the 1990s and into the 2000s, but the unemployment crisis remained.

It was in this context that, among other things, the government launched a five-year expanded public works programme (EPWP) in 2004 with a commitment to creating a million work opportunities of varying duration. That target was achieved a year ahead of schedule.

Building on this , a second five-year phase of the programme was launched in 2009. This time a target of 4.5 million work opportunities was set. The second phase ends next month and the job-creation target will have been achieved.

It is with a degree of confidence that 6 million public employment work opportunities are being projected for the next five years. Ambitious but feasible headcount targets like these are important.

However, it is even more critical to assess the impact of the programmes.

Nobody should be claiming public employment programmes are the main or only solution to our unemployment crisis. Perhaps their primary value lies with other developmental objectives such as broadening the social security net, enabling sustainable livelihoods, providing services to and by the marginalised (breaking out of the top-down “delivery” mode), and fostering community cohesion with a sense of public ownership of local assets through shared productive activities in neighbourhoods. Indeed, these programmes potentially form part of an alternative reality; what is referred to in continental Europe as a “social economy”.

Apart from any inherent value, the assets and services produced can also help shift the balance of bargaining power for those in the employment queue when they confront profit-maximising employers. We shouldn’t assume, as Zille does, that it’s necessarily a favour to funnel the dispossessed, nakedly, without a back-stop into precarious labour markets in the midst of a persisting global economic crisis.

With chronic unemployment in many developed economies, the relative scale and innovative achievements of South Africa’s public employment programmes have become the subject of international interest. More is the pity they often go unnoticed locally, or dismissed as “bogus”.

Uniquely, our public employment programmes cut across several sectors; they are championed through different line departments, provinces and municipalities – including the City of Cape Town where Mayor Patricia de Lille (to her credit) has been an exemplary champion of these “not real jobs”.

There are also programmes funded by the government but managed by non-profit organisations and the community work programme. Across many of these fronts South Africa has been an innovator.

We broke new ground in seeking to main-stream labour-based methods into government infrastructure contracting in general, rather than having labour-based public works projects in a separate silo. Admittedly, we’ve had uneven results due, in part, to resistance from the private construction sector.

The project-based nature of construction (when the clinic or footbridge has been built the work ends) contributes often to the short duration of work opportunities. In phase three of the EPWP we will place greater emphasis on using public employment programmes for much-needed infrastructure maintenance and not just construction.

There are other areas of significant South African innovation. South Africa is still the only country that has a range of public employment activities in the social sector, including early childhood and home-based care. In the environmental sector, South Africa has been a world leader.

Programmes such as Working for Water and Working on Fire have provided long-term work opportunities and rendered hundreds of billions of unrecorded rand’s worth of environmental services.

We have learnt our public employment programmes do not have to be make-work, short-term arrangements. Many are producing assets and providing much-needed services.

In the early 2000s it was sometimes assumed there was a well-functioning “first” economy. Public employment programmes tended to be seen as one-off interventions (much like taxi recapitalisation),promoting participants out of a dysfunctional, so-called “second” economy.

Now we know better. It’s the mainstream economy that is often dysfunctional. There are, however, real possibilities of graduating from a public employment experience, but we need to better integrate other government interventions with the programmes, such as micro-business incubation.

We also plan to massively expand public employment schemes working with non-profit organisations and through the community work programme. In these cases there are often prospects for part-time but relatively permanent work.

Let’s stop thinking of public employment programmes as second best, stop-gap measures. Let’s recognise their considerable potential and let’s work to improve their impact as part of a suite of developmental initiatives.

* Cronin is deputy minister for public works and deputy general secretary of the SACP.

** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers.

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