National interest should come first in protecting jobs

10 May 2020

South Africa should look inward at this critical time

The onset of Coronavirus and the subsequent realisation that its defeat will be a gruelling marathon has spawned renewed vigour in how South Africa should undo the joblessness the pandemic has unleashed in its wake.

It is common cause that assistance provided by the government to both individuals and companies affected is useful but woefully inadequate. Many, especially in townships and villages, are left exposed and vulnerable. Others in economic centres like Joburg, Cape Town and Ethekwini face the prospect of losing jobs and, with this, their houses, cars and making the trek back to their villages where life, while hard, is reasonably affordable.

The announcement by Employment and Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi that his department was putting in place employment policy in terms of which certain sectors of the economy will be required to prioritise jobs for South Africans has generated emotive responses. Many have welcomed this, while others have accused him of being xenophobic.

At the heart of this policy suggestion is the question: why should South Africa continue to allow foreigners a free pass even for jobs that ordinary, unskilled South Africans can do? There are a few layers to the question.

First, it’s about options available to the country to diminish the threat of a jobs bloodbath made worse by the global pandemic. The options are limited. The pain from corona will linger for a long time. The overarching strategy the country has adopted seems to suggest initial economic cushioning of vulnerable sectors followed by a rethink of anti-poverty and job-creation strategy.

Nxesi’s announcement precariously sits in the latter, while earlier announcements on increases in social grants, Unemployment Insurance Fund interventions and funds to help SMMEs are, together with the R350 stipend for the unemployed, part of the former.

Second is the cost of employment. It is known many farms, construction companies, restaurants and hotels prefer foreigners not only for their cheap labour, but their general susceptibility to exploitation. If they’re replaced by the local rights-oriented troupers, this might impact the cost of lamb chops at your nearest restaurant. The corollary is queues of township youth who wake up but have nowhere to go because that territory in restaurants is crowded by foreigners.

The third is the intersection of jobs and immigration policy. Immigration policy requires astute and nimble management. If not properly managed, it can make the wrong type of politicians, the xenophobes, rise to power on account of frustrations on the ground. And it is true that an economic demand for cheap labour has generated xenophobic violence that must not be countenanced. The response is hardly the erection of a 40km fence in the hope that, to quote Public Works Minister Patricia de Lille, it will “ensure that no undocumented or (COVID-19) infected persons cross into the country”.

In the US, immigration policy has gifted them their worst president who, because of the flooding between his ears, has utterly failed to provide leadership on that country’s management of COVID-19.

But what should South Africa do in the wake of reports that COVID-19 will unleash many more to join legions of unemployed South Africans? “You can’t sit with millions of unemployed South Africans and in certain industries you just allow non-South Africans to be employed without any regulation,” said Nxesi in his parliamentary briefing on Thursday. The criticism from the DA was that this will “be a nasty exercise in social

But there is nothing wrong with social engineering that enables a country to
improve its performance pursuant to its national interests.

Labour director-general Thobile Lamati explained that this was nothing new as it was done the world over. Lamati is right. Coronavirus, I suppose, has gifted the department courage to wake up from a 26-year slumber. The truth is nations around the world regulate what type of jobs foreigners can do. You just don’t leave Mamotintane or Umlazi to set up a salon in New York or London. Work-based immigration policies of progressive nations in the world require that one is educated in specialised fields or is a senior executive of a firm operating in their countries, among others.

Even in Australia, where many white South Africans emigrate to, Senator Kristina Keneally ruffled feathers when she suggested something similar, saying this week “put Australian workers first”. The Sydney Morning Herald quotes Keneally as saying: “Australian workers must get a fair go and a first go at jobs.” Surely, there must be competition in the workplace. But not for menial jobs.

And of course, many of us will know or have a relative who, when asked what type of job they need, will answer: “Nomayini, mlungu. Nomayini.” Where the Nomayinis are not employed and Nxesi’s policy does not pass, they become a burden to the black middle class, they steal from pensioners who stand in long queues for a pittance.

But also, we must start a campaign to promote Proudly South African firms. When we do this, we help generate jobs locally. We give local jobs, to use Keneally’s words, “a fair go and a first go”. We can’t be surprised that the Chinese economy is resilient when all we do is shun local goods and consume everything Chinese. The next few months will be long and hard – and jobs will be scarce. In this glocal world, we must remember that it is in the national interest that foreigners who come in must bring rare skills and that we must raise our consciousness about the positive economic effects of buying locally produced goods.



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