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THE TRANSFORMATIVE IMPERATIVE: INSTITUTIONALISING SOCIAL EMPLOYMENT IN SOUTH AFRICA

Dr Rejoice Shumba | 2 November 2023


Keiskammahoek (a combination of Dutch and Khoikhoi literally meaning ‘corner of shining waters’) is a small town in the Eastern Cape, resting at the foot of the Amatola Mountains. Keiskammahoek is also the birthplace of the Siyakholwa Development Foundation, a social enterprise focussing on addressing critical social issues like poverty, education, maternal health and child welfare, early childhood development, youth unemployment, and food security. Much like other small rural Eastern Cape towns, Keiskammahoek is poor, with little infrastructure, investment or opportunity.

The crucible of unemployment: a call for innovation

South Africa’s stubbornly high unemployment rate has long been a dark cloud looming over our dreams for prosperity and equality. In a nation where the private sector is unable to absorb those looking for work, 34% of our population remains jobless, so addressing this crisis has become paramount. Traditional approaches have yielded limited success, and it is clear that bold, innovative and scalable solutions are required.

Enter social employment, a paradigm that transcends the boundaries of traditional job creation. It is not just about filling vacancies; it is about reshaping the very fabric of our society. Social employment programmes are not a fix-all, but rather a strategy to complement the private sector’s initiatives of promoting economic growth and enterprise development.

The idea behind social employment is simple yet profound. It looks to provide opportunities for those who have been marginalised by barriers such as lack of education, skills, or access to resources. It is about opening doors that were once firmly shut, ensuring that more South Africans have a chance to contribute to and participate in the economy.

The Social Employment Fund


The Social Employment Fund (SEF) is a social employment programme that seeks to create 65 000 temporary jobs for previously unemployed people. It is based upon ‘working for the common good’ by remunerating activities that contribute to community upliftment in areas like education, health, food security and nutrition.


Participants earn a stipend while acquiring valuable on-the-job skills that helps prepare them for the workplace. It is administered by the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC), and implemented by 35 civil society organisations across the country, of which Siyakholwa is one.


Siyakholwa has been an implementing partner of the SEF for the past 18 months and the highlight of our journey has been to provide work opportunities for the most desperate people, some who have no work experience at all. The majority are young people – many without matric – with hopes and dreams of being independent, to earn their own income and provide for their own families. The SEF has given them hope. At least for now, they have two days of work and can earn a predictable and stable income which can be used to start other income generating activities, or apply for long-term work.


The SEF offers so much more than temporary work and skills, it also offers its participants an opportunity to gain confidence and dignity. Thabo is a young man who joined the SEF programme with no skills at all. Through one of Siyakholwa’s development programmes he’s had the opportunity to learn basic electrical skills like repairing wiring systems, and installing electrical conduits, cables and tubing. These skills have taught him to fix broken and disused electrical appliances, which he now sells for a nominal fee in the community. The SEF has given him a sense of purpose and pride, the chance to start his own micro enterprise from which the Keiskammahoek community also benefits.


When social employment initiatives are created, pathways to a better life are established. Community members gain skills on the job, and a newfound sense of agency takes root. Families experience an uptick in their economic circumstances, which leads to increased access to basics like education and health care. This, in turn, nurtures the community, who collectively benefit from the skills acquired and from additional economic stimulation.


South Africa is at a crossroads. A point where innovation and inclusivity must converge to pave the way for a better future. Amid the complexities of economic challenges and social disparities, the concept of social employment hovers as a guiding light, offering not just temporary relief, but a profound and sustainable opportunity for systemic change. It is time for us to recognise the transformative potential of social employment as a way to promote job continuity and sustained impact.


Beyond immediate gains: a catalyst for sustainable change

There is an elderly gentleman living in Keiskammahoek. Well-respected, he lives a simple life, relying on a small grant and the goodwill of community members to make ends meet. Having never had the opportunity to study, acquire skills or build a career, I wonder how different his life may have been had he been able to benefit from a programme like SEF. Perhaps he would have started his own small fresh produce business, employing and upskilling other community members. Perhaps he would have studied teaching and become a principal, guiding and mentoring today’s youth.

While the immediate impact of social employment cannot be understated – providing jobs, income, and a sense of purpose to countless people – it’s true power lies in the domino effect it can trigger. By institutionalising social employment, we catalyse a chain reaction of positive change that ripples through communities, positively impacting generations to come.


There’s also a knock-on effect to youth, who are better equipped to tackle the challenges of the modern world with a sense of purpose and belonging. The cycle continues as these young people get the opportunity to curate their own futures, perpetuating a virtuous cycle of progress.

From exclusion to empowerment: bridging socio-economic divides

One of the most compelling reasons to institutionalise social employment lies in its ability to address the deeply ingrained disparities that persist within our society. The scars of our historical injustices, compounded by current challenges, have left many South Africans in desperate need. Social employment becomes a bridge that connects these marginalised communities with the promise of hope.


Driving economic resilience: a win-win proposition

Critics may argue that institutionalising social employment poses fiscal challenges. However, a closer examination reveals that the benefits far outweigh the costs. A workforce that is gainfully employed contributes not only to individual livelihoods but to the overall resilience of the economy. Reduced dependency on social welfare programmes, increased consumer spending, and a more skilled workforce can serve as catalysts for economic growth – something South Africa sorely needs.

Moreover, the spirit of entrepreneurship flourishes when individuals have access to resources, skills, and a supportive environment. By institutionalising social employment, we provide the fertile ground from which innovative ventures can sprout, adding new dimensions to our economic landscape.


A vision realised: the path forward

Institutionalising social employment is not a mere policy prescription; it is a manifestation of our collective vision for a more just and equitable South Africa. It is a commitment to breaking down the barriers that hinder progress and creating an environment where every citizen can contribute to the country’s success.

To embark on this journey, we must first recognise that the success of social employment hinges on a multilateral approach. Government entities, private sector players, civil society organisations, and local communities must collaborate to bring this vision to fruition. Through strategic partnerships, sustainable funding mechanisms, and a shared dedication to change, we can lay the foundation for a future where social employment is not an exception but a rule.


As we contemplate the road ahead, let us dare to dream of a South Africa where social employment is deeply ingrained in our ethos – a beacon of hope, a catalyst for progress, and a testament to our unwavering commitment to the principles of inclusivity and empowerment. By institutionalising social employment, we carve a path toward a nation that thrives on the strength of its people, ensuring that no one is left behind on our journey to a better tomorrow.

Dr Rejoice Shumba is the CEO of social enterprise Siyakholwa Development Foundation. | Helping build stronger communities.


‘Disclaimer - The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the BEE CHAMBER’.


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