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We explore seven stories emerging from fifty-six (56) quarters of labour survey data from Statistics South Africa, and what those stories tell us about the South African economy and its crisis levels of under-employment.

From the global financial crisis in 2007-8 to the COVID-19 pandemic, the July 2021 social unrest and April 2022 flooding, the South African labour market has faced numerous headwinds, as critical sector and firm-level shifts, displaced workers in the sectors in the real economy most capable of absorbing the unemployed. 

The prospects of finding work, for many of those who will be joining the workforce for the first time and those resuming the search for work, will be determined by many factors. Least of all their suitability or skill for the work on offer, the sectors from which this work emerges and other demographic features of the labour market, such as which sectors employ women and what kind of work is to be found in rural versus urban provinces. 

We consider seven key stories of ‘change’ emerging from the Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS) published by Statistics South Africa (StatsSA), which give us some insight on where work has come from in the last fourteen (14) years, the gender and spatial distribution of such work, and the implications of these factors on the ability of work-seekers to find work. 


1. While over a million jobs have been created between 2008 and 2022 , the cohort of those of working age has risen by nearly seven times that number. 

Over 1.3 million new jobs have been created between 2008 and the third quarter of 2022, while the working age population (those able and willing to work between the ages of 15 and 64) has increased by 8.7million. The bulk of this growth in the working age population has come from Gauteng, KwaZulu Natal and the Western Cape. Gauteng had 2.9million more people of working age in the third quarter of 2022, compared to the start of 2008. 

2. The finance and government sector added the highest levels of new jobs between 2008 and 2022, with manufacturing and domestic work in private households registering the highest job losses

So which sectors gained jobs, and which lost significant employment? The community, personal and social services sector (the bulk of which is government work) created 1.13 million jobs (or 85% of all new jobs in the period), while finance created 601 000 new jobs. Manufacturing was the biggest loser, with 481 000 jobs lost, followed by private households with 145 000 jobs lost. 

3. 136 000 more women joined the ranks of the employed between 2008 and 2022, than their male counterparts. Although there are 1.8million more men employed than women by 2022. Women lost a significant share of jobs in manufacturing, domestic work, and retail. 

Over a third of women employed in the South African labour market, are employed in the government sector, followed by the wholesale, retail and trade sector with over a fifth of women workers employed in retail. The government sector added 820 000 women workers in the period between 2008 and 2022, while the retail sector lost 165 000 jobs held by women, in the fourteen (14) year period. A further 154 000 jobs were lost by women in domestic work, and another 132 000 jobs in manufacturing. 

4. There are still over four times the number of men employed in the mining sector than women, although the number of women working in mining doubled between 2008 and 2022.

The mining sector registered the highest growth in the fourteen years in the employment of women, albeit of a very low base. The number of women working in mining doubled in the period from 36 000 to 73 000, constituting over two thirds of the net new jobs in the sector over this period. This growth was followed by growth in employment of women in utilities (Eskom and the Water Boards), off an even lower base. 

5. A significant number of the jobs lost in retail were lost in Kwa-Zulu Natal, with the province alongside Gauteng losing a significant number of upstream manufacturing roles between 2008 and 2022

Manufacturing and retail are critical employers of those with limited or no skill. The spatial distribution of manufacturing work is focused on the urban provinces of Gauteng, the Western Cape and KwaZulu Natal. Gauteng lost the most manufacturing jobs in the period, with just under a quarter of a million (244 000) roles lost. KwaZulu while maintaining its share of just under a fifth of all manufacturing employment between 2008 and 2022, lost 127 000 manufacturing jobs in the period. The province of Mpumalanga is the only province that registered improvement in manufacturing employment, adding 43 000 jobs in the period. 

6. Construction sector is still a very manly affair, with men constituting more than six times the number of women to be found in the sector.

The construction sector is still very much a ‘gentleman’s club’ with only 177 000 women employed in 2022, compared to over one million men employed in the sector. The sector is labour intensive with a proven capability to employ those with limited or no skill and is at the centre of the government’s economic reconstruction plans. In a fourteen-year period that coincided with peak activity leading up to the 2010 World Cup and ongoing housing, water, and sanitation infrastructure backlog eradication, it has disappointingly only added 43 000 net new jobs. 

7. Limpopo experienced the highest growth rate (0,87%) in employment in construction in the period, adding 50 000 jobs, followed by KwaZulu Natal with 38 000 jobs, with the Western Cape losing the most in terms of employment in the built environment. 

Private sector and residential construction growth have added jobs, while according to the Construction Industry Report released by Stats SA in June 2022, the sector lost 31 000 jobs in the construction of civil engineering structures and 9000 site preparation roles between 2011 and 2020. In the period between 2008 and 2022, employment in construction increased from 79 000 to 129 000 jobs, while the Western Cape saw employment in the sector decline from just under 200 000 jobs at the start of 2008 to 176 000 jobs by the third quarter of 2022. Coincidentally, Limpopo has also experienced the highest growth (0.31%) in retail employment, adding 47 000 jobs between 2008 and 2022. 


There are fewer new jobs than the growth in the workforce experienced in the last fourteen years. Put simply, there are more work-seekers chasing fewer jobs. Where new jobs have come, it has been in government and services-related work, with significant declines in the real economy sectors with a known capability of employing those with limited or no skill and vulnerable categories of work-seekers like women. Women workers have borne the brunt of job losses as they have affected the retail, domestic work, and manufacturing sectors. 

Economic policies that look to expand employment will have to focus on interventions that stimulate infrastructure investment alongside social wage interventions that enable the undertaking of care, learning and affective tasks.

Moreover, policy must also protect the consumption baskets of primarily poor households from the erosion of spending power due to a rise in prices, which has implications for employment in agriculture, manufacturing, and retail. Lastly, the spatial distribution of enabling economic and social policy interventions, must complement new areas of employment growth outside the industrial nodes (such as manufacturing in Mpumalanga or construction or retail in Limpopo).



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