South Africa under construction: Give public works a chance

| Amelia Midgley
Photo courtesy of The Department of Public Works.

The Expanded Public Works Programme aims to create millions of short-term jobs every year while also providing the county with much needed infrastructure such as roads, hospitals and schools in areas that need it.

South Africa has high levels of inequality, unemployment and poverty. This can have negative effects on the country when it comes to economic growth, as well as the general optimism of the population. We see many strikes because of poor public service delivery. Many recent strikes have often taken place in the poorest areas of the country, where access to basic human rights such as water and housing are not provided to everyone. The strikes are often violent protests against the fact that policy makers are not meeting the expectations of their people.

Strikes put pressure on the government to provide jobs and services. One part of a solution that the government is providing is the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) which aims to create millions of short-term jobs every year while also providing the county with much needed infrastructure such as roads, hospitals and schools in areas that need it.

These programmes use a lot of labour so that these two goals can be met at the same time. This is a real step in the right direction of creating jobs and not just talking about the jobs we need. It is also an active way that the government can create jobs instead of relying on economic growth to eventually provide them. However, there is a lot of criticism of the role of Public Works Programmes in providing long-run solutions to our unemployment crisis.

The first criticism is often that the costs of the programmes are more than policy makers say they will be, and that indirect costs make a strong case against running these programmes altogether. Direct costs are costs like the salaries paid to workers while indirect costs can include less noticeable costs like loss in the motivation of people to find jobs without help from the Public Works Programme. A second criticism is that the quality of the infrastructure built is of lower standard than if it had been provided by companies outside of the EPWP and that using manual labour instead of machines will cause human error in the work done. Lastly, there are many criticisms that the EPWP is not meeting its targets of employment, skills training and movement of people into formal jobs at the end of working for the EPWP. What this all means is that many experts are saying that the programmes are a waste of money and should not be run at all.

These criticisms cast a shadow over a great opportunity and are themselves often the problem. These programmes are obviously not running perfectly, but we must be clear on what we are comparing them too. We should not compare them with made-up examples of perfectly running programmes but rather look at real-life examples of what other policies governments can use to create jobs.

There are very few options right now to creating the jobs we need in our country. The question we should be asking is whether there could be a different way that the money could be put to use to create jobs, and if so would this way be better? Right now, it’s hard to see a better alternative, so criticising these programmes isn’t of much use at this point in time.

We should try to understand the goals of programmes like the EPWP more clearly so that their outcomes can be measured in comparison to what they promise. Because the programmes are run by many different managers, policy makers and government officials, there are going to be many different ideas of what the programme should try to achieve. Having many goals can lead to a deeper and more long-term solution to the problem, but it can also lead to unstable expectations of the outcomes of a programme, and in the case of the EPWP lead to many criticisms of the programme being unsuccessful. It should be made absolutely clear what the goals of the EPWP are and which of them are the most important. This will mean that there will be fewer expectations, and hopefully less unconstructive criticism of the policy. We should try to move away from this type of criticism to a place where people realise that the EPWP, despite its challenges, is making some headway in improving the situation of people.

Hopefully, this will lead to an open discussion and advice rather than criticism.

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