Any job may be better than having no employment at all!

The ANC promise of jobs in its election manifesto will come to naught unless there is a fundamental rethink about how jobs are created, unless consensus is reach on what a job is, and unless a new pragmatic partnership between business , organized labour and government is cobbled together.

Even if President Jacob Zuma’s second presidential term achieves high economic growth rates, so crucial to create jobs, such growth will remain jobless – as it has been for most of the post-apartheid period – unless there is a fundamental rethink about job creation strategies.

South Africa’s unemployment is structural and overcoming unemployment will take a package of integrated structural reforms.

All the key structural reforms necessary to create mass jobs face severe opposition from one powerful market player of other.

The first such structural reform would be an ideological rethink about how to create jobs among all South Africa’s key social partners: organized labour, business and the ANC government.

A real obstacle is the wrong belief among some influential policy makers that here is one standalone magic solution.

Leading sections of the governing ANC-SACP-COSATU alliance wrongly argue that only the state can create jobs. A case in point is the emphasis of the ANC’s election manifesto on creating jobs mostly through public works and the expansion of social security.

On the other hand, some opposition parties totally dismiss expanding social security to the vulnerable, which is also wrong. The reality is that there are going to be those in society who are genuinely indigent, whether because of disability, old age or long-term unemployment.

The challenge is how to pursue the kind of pragmatic structural reforms that will create and sustain new jobs for the unemployed in order to lessen the welfare burden on the state. With a decreasing tax base, it is not sustainable to extend welfare benefits without linking their recipients to productive work and up skilling those without work.

One option is to link social grants to low-tech training and work, such as getting recipients to spend a few evenings patrolling townships streets to combat crime, or patrolling streets during the days to make sure gangsters do not interfere with schooling, or watching parks to keep them safe.

The challenge is how to stop job losses among the unskilled and low-skilled and create new ones for the existing unemployed and for new entries, at a much cheaper rate.

State-led public works job creation strategies are useless unless those employed are provided with appropriate technical skills – of the kind crucial to the economy.

Another structural hindrance to job creation is the mistrust between government, business and organized labour.

The focus on securing employment equity in terms of numbers, replacing white faces with blacks no matter the merit, and the focus on wealth redistribution to a few individuals who are connected to the ANC leadership through black economic empowerment – rather than focusing on skills transfer, improving education, creating new industries and helping the five million black entrepreneurs in the informal sector – are also structural impediments to job creation.

The truth is that South Africa has reached a deadlock between government, organized labour and business over labour market policies – and unless it is resolved, this deadlock will stymie (confuse, confound, battle, stump) any job creation initiatives.

We need an imaginative approach to get past this dead end.

Job creation is undermined by inflexible ideological stances – across the political spectrum – on South Africa’s labour laws, rules and regulations. Organized business wants a wholesale relaxation of labour laws, which it says are solely responsible for companies not hiring.

Deregulating formal labour markets wholesale will not work.

However, some labour laws may have to be ‘loosened’ is the government’s job creation targets are to be met. Laws may have to be relaxed to allow the army of unemployed young people to enter the workplace and gain skills and experience. Lower wages may have to be introduced – but not at the expense of people who already have jobs.

Some trade unions are rigidly opposed to loosening labour laws, rules and practices. They believe that if labour laws are eased, organized business will deliberately introduce parties that will undermine basic employment and human rights conditions.

South Africa may have to adopt the idea of a dual labour market – in which certain sections are exempt from certain labour laws. Clearly, small and medium sized business should be exempted from collective bargaining agreements.

The debate over whether a job is ‘decent’ or not in the wrong debate.

Is it sensible to close a textile factory in a poverty stricken area that provides jobs because it does not pay minimum wages?

As instinctively uncomfortable it may be for individuals who cut their political teeth in the trade union movement, the sobering reality is that any job may be better than not having one at all.

The challenge is whether those in the lowest jobs will be treated fairly, with dignity, according to health and safety regulations and without racism?

The dilemma of South Africa’s labour marker is that most of the unemployed have few or no skills, yet the job being created are for those with technical and professional skills or in management.

The labour market is also racialised. Those without jobs and skills are likely to be black and often young. Furthermore, they will most likely live in apartheid planned townships and rural areas, far from the centres of employment and public transport.

May black school leavers do not have the hard skills, social skills or connections to enter the labour market.

These factors make it difficult to strike compromises between government, business and labour on sustainable strategies to create jobs – and hinder attempts to pursue the kind of structural reforms needed to create jobs in a rational way.

Pragmatic coalitions between business, labour and government may be one of the best solutions for overcoming the structural challenges of creating mass jobs. Each side must compromise for the greater good of creating jobs, lifting growth and boosting economic development.

Given that attempts to foster such social pacts at national level between government, business and labour have not been successful since 1994, perhaps a better option would be for stakeholders to focus their energy on securing such job creation strategies in specific sectors, industries, or even at individual factories and workplaces.

Such social pacts between the government – whether at city or municipal level – business and labour could strike mutual compromises to grow industries and create jobs.