Incorporating bomahlalela; reconceptualising unemployment and labour in the age of uncertainty
Updated: Aug 3
Dr. Thabang Sefalafala argues that COVID-19 has brought to many the tacit realisation that jobs alone cannot give security and dignity to all. He proposes a double approach to policy formulation, one that recognises the need for both wages and comprehensive system of social protection de-linked from employment conditions.
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One of the most important lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa is the exposure of policy gaps in relation to the unemployed. The unemployed are a growing population of abandonment; excluded from the economy and society. They are often excluded from economic participation in their communities and seen as bomahlalela (reprobates)- people lacking an important aspect of what it means to be a person of value in the world today (Sefalafala, 2018). Productivism has become an important measure of personhood. The problem with unemployment is not just the lack of money or poverty, the main problem is the exclusion from a productivist anchored hegemonic source of meaning and dignity (Sefalafala, 2018). The unemployed suffer a life of uncertainty and fear because they live in a condition of anomie, that is unregulated, and provisional (Durkheim, 1952, Frankl, 2004). But COVID-19 has brought to many the tacit realisation that jobs alone cannot give security and dignity to all. The article argues that the ardent focus on job creation must be complimented by a comprehensive social protection system de-linked from employment conditions. In other words, COVID-19 has highlighted the immediate need to embrace a double approach, one that recognises the need for both wages and comprehensive social protection in society. This will be necessary to re-incorporate the unemployed back into the economy and society. One way of de-linking income from labour and opening up imaginaries to rethink what counts as work is through what has become known as the Basic Income Grant (BIG) or Universal Basic Income (UBI) (Standing, 2017).
The unemployed in South Africa’s economic and social policy
South Africa’s economic and social policy constructs the unemployed as indirect beneficiaries of social grants which are meant for people outside of the labour force such as child grant and old age grant on the one hand, and on the other, indirect beneficiaries of entrepreneurial activities. Pre-COVID-19, the long term unemployed were largely invisible to the social security system. For example, the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) is a contribution based on those in employment and therefore excludes the multitudes of young graduates and matriculants entering the job market every year. They have never contributed to the UIF and have become known as NEETs (Not in Employment Education and Training) (ILO, 2015). South Africa has a considerably large number of people (est. 18 million) on the social security system, but in reality social security excludes a large proportion of the Economically Active Population (EAP). The six month COVID-19 Social Relief of Distress (SRD) grant for the unemployed came as a result of this realisation (SASSA, 2020, Statistics South Africa, 2020). It is a step in the right direction, but is hardly sufficient to build a comprehensive social floor. The Taylor commission recommended in 2002 a non-means tested BIG be implemented but this was rejected by government. Standard objections to the BIG such as ‘the dependency, laziness and misuse thesis’ were effectively evoked alongside ‘unaffordability’. Instead government opted for Public employment programs such as the Expanded Public Works Program (EPWP) and the Community Work Program (CWP) (Barchiesi, 2007).
On the other hand, entrepreneurship is important and has attained messianic status in South Africa’s economic and industrial policy. Entrepreneurs are seen as self-employed people who must establish flourishing enterprises and create employment opportunities for the unemployed (NDP, 2012). The unemployed are thus seen as indirect beneficiaries of the flourishing of entrepreneurial activities. Such thinking overlooks capital’s constant search for reducing wage costs and increasing profits (Barchiesi, 2011). There is simply no guarantee that entrepreneurial flourishing or industrialisation will solve the unemployment crisis as mechanisation is another wage reducing and profit maximising method. Due to the lockdown and restriction on certain forms of trade, many businesses both formal and informal are collapsing and thousands of jobs and livelihoods are being destroyed (Steinacker, 2020). An influx into the informal economy cannot be expected (Francis,Valodia & Ramburuth-Hurt, 2020) because in comparison to other developing countries, South Africa's informal sector is small and relatively inflexible to absorb the unemployed from the formal sector.
Taken together, the rejection of a comprehensive social security system and the praise for entrepreneurship are part of a larger ideological discourse of jobs that delegitimises forms of income distribution to the unemployed outside of a typical job (Barchiesi, 2007). The opposition to non-wage forms of income distribution is underpinned by the dominant ideas that people should not be given ‘something for nothing’ (Standing, 2017). Advocates of job creation often draw on the need to focus mainly on job creation strategies as a solution to poverty, crime and promoting full human potential. There are broadly six job creation strategies in South Africa, these include; macro-economic growth to reduce unemployment, industrial restructuring to achieve competitiveness across sectors, skills development to overcome the skills shortage, facilitating the informal economy to promote its flourishing, easing the business environment by removing unnecessary constraints on small enterprises to formalise, and public works projects to create job opportunities (Maree, 2007).
My concern is not with these job creation strategies, but a rejection of the elevation of jobs to the status of a panacea. This blinds us to the obvious need for a comprehensive social floor to compliment job creation (see Steinberg, 2013 as well). To respond adequately to the aftermath of globalisation and COVID-19, we need both jobs and comprehensive social protection. This moment requires us to think differently about the world. Job creation alone is not a sufficient strategy to meet the scale of the challenges we face in society today.
Before the onset of the COVID-19 global pandemic, over 8 million young South Africans looking for work could not find it. The economy was besieged by a series of underperforming economic growth indicators, showing that South Africa had slipped in and out of technical recessions and downgradings from rating agencies. Inequality and poverty levels are unprecedented (Statistics South Africa, 2020). Rates of unemployment differ by race, gender, education, skills and age. Young graduates are the fastest growing category of the unemployed. Statistics on graduate unemployment remain contested between those who argue that graduates are almost at full employment because employers snatch them up as soon as they become available and those who argue that graduate unemployment is very high mainly due to skills mismatch (CDE, 2019). The reality is a midway between the two. Many graduates are most likely to get precarious and ‘bullshit jobs’ that are not aligned to their aspirations and capabilities while only a handful are able to secure decent jobs and internships that contribute meaningfully to their skills and aspirations (Graeber, 2018).
Several companies across various sectors of the economy such as banking, construction, manufacturing, auditing and mining had already started retrenching before Covid-19, increasing redundant populations. Reasons for retrenchments vary from one sector to another. The retrenched were not only blue collar workers, but increasingly a large number of middle class employees are coming into full realisation that their corporate jobs are no longer secure (Business Insider SA, 2019).
Unemployment is not just a problem of a lack of income or poverty, nor does unemployment have any causal relationship to crime. The real issue with poverty is not that the unemployed simply lack money, the real issue of poverty for the unemployed, is how it makes them susceptible to abuses by employers who exploit their desperation. Poverty is a powerful instrument of economic coercion. It reduces the ability of people to say ‘No’ to participating in forms of labour that undermine their dignity. As an interviewee told me; ‘Poverty also makes you accept anything just to get some money’. Creating just any job to overcome unemployment is also not sufficient because people do not simply see jobs in a purely instrumental way. Great harm is done by jobs that fail to give workers decent conditions, security and dignity.
I argue that unemployment must be understood as a condition of moral loss leading to uncertainty and fear. The unemployed live in an unregulated space. Unemployment is not only an economic problem characterised by the lack of money and jobs. Unemployment signifies a regime of exclusion in which people are cast outside the boundaries of a hegemonic regime of meaning making. The unemployed often suffer stigma, a diminished sense of confidence and a sense of displacement and worthlessness. These experiences have devastating psycho-social implications (Sefalafala, 2018). Stigma was evident in comments and jokes across media platforms in reaction to the COVID-19 SRD grant. Stigma is a moral category highlighting social blemishes in ‘the others’ existence. What is lost in unemployment is not just money or a job but a type of moral order without a new one arising in place of the old (Goffman, 1963). The unemployed suffer from loss arising out of the inability to make claims and participate meaningfully in dominant ideas of wage-based forms of individuated personhood (Sefalafala, 2018). COVID-19 has accentuated the ways in which unemployment is a metaphor that aptly describes a society of uncertainty and fear in which nothing is guaranteed (regardless of skills, education, middle class, etc.). In the society of uncertainty and fear, there are no quick solutions and no one knows what lies ahead. As mass retrenchments loom and unemployment is set to rise, uncertainty and fear have engulfed society and our entire life course. Precarity is no longer just about labour market insecurity, or double precariousness (insecurity at work and social reproduction) or ‘precarious liberation’, precarity gives a name to the way things are; utterly uncertain and fearful (Bauman, 2007).
A key question that we have to think seriously about is: ‘to what extent does clinging to wages and dismissing comprehensive social protection make sense in a context in which the majority of people will continue without meaningful prospects for employment?’ COVID-19 has dramatically highlighted the longstanding failure of employment as an effective strategy of social inclusion and inequality is shown partly to be an outcome of the broken down mechanism of income distribution based on wages. The crisis has put on the agenda ideas such as the BIG which were considered to be utopian in the recent past. The crisis has also led to a rethink of what counts as essential work.
There have been all kinds of variants of the BIG and suggestions for how it can be realised from different interest groups. Some have used the term to describe a type of temporary relief measure or a once off cash injection to households- a band aid for injured economies that need a stimulus others have meant an unemployment grant. These conceptions ignore an important historical aspect of the BIG’s proposition, which is to provide a basic level of security for all delinked from employment conditions. The novelty of the BIG in the age of mass unemployment is in how it powerfully challenges the ideological and moral valorisation of wages as a only legitimate mode of income distribution.
A leading scholar on the BIG, Guy Standing (2017:3-7) defines it as a ‘modest amount of money paid unconditionally to individuals on a regular basis (e.g. monthly). It’s an amount that can allow someone to ‘survive in extremis’ in their society and its aim is to provide ‘basic economic security, not total security or affluence’. ‘Basic security is [important in] terms of being able to obtain enough food to eat…’it can start from a low amount and gradually increase depending on the funds available and is not a replacement for other social benefits. It would be paid to every single citizen, to individuals not households and unconditionally with no means testing required, no spending conditions and no behavioural conditions. For Standing (2009), the BIG can also provide an opportunity for work that is not labour. Work refers to self-chosen, self-directed activities performed under conditions of liberty. Work (not labour) is performed under conditions of liberating flexibility, agency, self-directed creativity, freedom and dignity, self-development and self-determination. Unlike labour, work is self-chosen for the purpose of development and social participation.
I am suggesting a double approach; one that recognises the need for both wage employment and comprehensive social protection in society. While a certain level of human suffering is inevitable, it is not clear why the working class unemployed should endure unnecessary suffering just because they do not have jobs. What is required is a comprehensive social security system in which income distribution is de-linked from employment status. Income needs to be de-linked from certain kinds of activities in workfare programs that people are coerced to perform in order to justify getting an income. Workfare refers to government sponsored low income programs often targeting the unemployed. A new income and wealth distribution mechanism is required, one which does not subject people to the humiliation of means testing or frequently prove to a government supervisor at the Department of Labour and Employment their job searching efforts as is the case in the German Hertz four welfare program and finally no requirement to show up for workfare programs. The Hertz Four program required unemployed welfare recipients to frequently provide evidence to the labour office of having looked for work (Booth & Scherschel, 2010). A Universal Basic Income (UBI, also referred to as a Basic Income Grant in South Africa, BIG) is a potentially viable alternative to de-link income from wages and workfarism (Standing, 2017, Ferguson, 2015).
However, in reality I have found in my research (Sefalafala, 2018) amongst retrenched mine workers that people do not want grants, they want jobs. Ironically they proclaim this in an epoch in which jobs are no longer a viable source of security and dignity. This means a strategy of social inclusion based on a Basic Income Grant will rest on the ability of the unemployed to recognise and accept that wages can no longer service their historical promise of mediating between the economy and society and promoting socioeconomic inclusion. For a BIG to become a viable policy option, society will need to accept the possibility of full employment being a thing of the past, in spite of various job creation strategies, and embrace a new vision in which decent life, equity and social justice are possible outside of wages. To incorporate bo-mahlalela back into society and the economy, we need to confront uncertainty and fear by adopting a double approach that combines wages and a comprehensive social floor.
About Author: Dr Thabang Masilo Sefalafala is a lecturer in the Department of Sociology, University of the Witwatersrand.
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