The Presidential Employment Stimulus has been a huge success, so why isn’t it a priority?

The massive, ambitious programme offers participants - and the economy - real hope

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Part of the Streetscapes programme in Cape Town is funded from the Presidential Employment Stimulus, which has created about 800,000 jobs in total. Archive photo: Ashraf Hendricks

  • More than 1 million people have directly benefitted from the Presidential Employment Stimulus (PES) programme launched by Cyril Ramaphosa in 2020.
  • About 800,000 short-term jobs, mostly for young people, have been created so far.
  • Most of the jobs are in education and in social programmes such as early childhood development and community safety.
  • Programme lead Kate Philip says the PES could be expanded almost immediately.

The Presidential Employment Stimulus (PES), launched by Cyril Ramaphosa in response to the Covid pandemic, has pulled more than 1 million people into jobs or supported their livelihoods since it was launched.

Since 2020, 1.1 million people have directly benefited from the programme, which has cost R32.6-billion over the three years (about R30,000 per direct beneficiary). Many more people’s lives have been improved because of the additional household income. The progress and success of the programme can be tracked on the Presidency’s State of the Nation website, using a dashboard created by civic tech organisation OpenUp.

The scale is massive: 800,000 mostly short-term jobs, mostly for young people, and aimed at serving the common good, have been created so far. Of these, over 40,000 jobs were retained during lockdown.

Yet the National Treasury’s spending projections for the next three years, found in this year’s budget, do not account for the stimulus from next year. The Presidency told GroundUp that it will continue (in some form). Presidential spokesperson Vincent Magwenya said, “There is no intention to terminate the programme. The Presidency will be engaging through the budget process for further allocations that will cover 2024/25 and beyond.”

But there is no budget allocated to it for the years to come and each year since 2020 has seen a drop in its funding. With no budget, planning for the PES’s future is incredibly difficult.

By comparison, in the third phase of the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) which ran from 2014-2019, over 4.5 million work opportunities were created over five years. During the EPWP’s first five-year run, 1.6 million work opportunities were created. A “work opportunity” in the EPWP is a paid job on a project or activity for any period of time within a year, and a person may find more than one such opportunity during a year.

The jobs programmes started by the PES are run differently than those in the EPWP, and supporters of the programme say it is paving a way to a new model of public employment. It is also a shining success for Ramaphosa.

For former treasury official Andrew Donaldson, the PES is “comfortably the most important thing that has emerged from the president’s strategy from late 2020” .

“Of all the policy commitments, we’re seeing actual delivery of what was planned,” he says. Donaldson is a Senior Research Associate at the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU) at the University of Cape Town, and formerly Deputy Director-General in the National Treasury with responsibility for the Budget Office and Public Finance.

The programme is barely commensurate with the size of the problem that it seeks to address. South Africa’s youth unemployment is nearly 50%, according to estimates from the International Labour Organisation in 2021, and young women are significantly more likely to be unemployed - 55% are without work, according to the same source.


By far the largest and most impressive component of the PES, responsible for 75% of all jobs created, is the schools programme, called the Basic Education Employment Initiative (BEEI).

The BEEI places unemployed young people (aged 18 to 35) in schools around the country, in a variety of roles, from maintenance work to teaching assistants. Participation in the programme is a one-off, and the work is for eight months of the school year.

In the latest round starting in February 2023, 150,000 young people were placed in schools across the country. The next intake of 105,000 youths begins on 1 May. Since the programme began, nearly 600,000 youth school assistants have passed through the programme. There are just under 500,000 teachers in South Africa, according to recent figures from the Department of Basic Education (DBE).

For 72% of those in the schools programme, it was their first work experience. The programme is massively oversubscribed: 1.5 million people applied for the 255,000 total school assistant posts throughout the 2023 intake. A call centre run by programme partner Harambee received 75,000 requests for support for the application process.

The programme offers participants a real job, with real management, and really important things to do — making sure children get as much from school as they can. Participants work full days for the national minimum wage of R25.42 per hour. This is a departure from EPWP programmes, which offer an hourly wage of R13.97.

Young people are placed into a system in which management is capable of dealing with more people (and grateful for the help). Teachers surveyed about the programme expressed near-universal approval for the extra hand in overcrowded classrooms. In one survey, 95% of teachers said that it strengthened learning and 94% of teachers reported that it was a good experience for them.

It could be better. In their recent report, the 2030 Reading Panel, which advocates for universal literacy in South Africa, noted that the programme does not train participants properly and has very low barriers to entry: a 30% pass for matric and fluency in the home language of the school. A relatively small investment in training these assistants, and providing them with resources like workbooks, leads to improved results, the panel said.

The recently published results of a randomised control trial that looked at a Limpopo programme run by Funda Wande, an education organisation, found that schools that had selected, trained and supported teacher assistants achieved much better results in bringing children up to their grade standard in literacy and numeracy than those without.

Social employment

The next largest jobs component of the PES is the Social Employment Programme, run through the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition and offering 16 hours of work a week at the National Minimum Wage. So far, 65,000 people have been given work through this scheme (the current intake is 47,000 jobs), with 69% of jobs given to women.

These programmes are run through 28 so-called Strategic Implementing Partners, and the scope of work that can be done through social employment is “intentionally broad”, so that organisations can respond to needs identified within communities. Organisations can offer work in care, Early Childhood Development, gender programmes, community safety, informal settlement upgrading, for instance.

Based on the number of submissions by would-be partners, the programme could have created 300,000 jobs instead of 50,000.

For Kate Philip, Programme Lead for the PES, the Social Employment Programme could be the most exciting way to develop the jobs programme further.

“We can use public employment programmes to strengthen the commons and create new forms of social engagement and participation in community-driven ways,” she told GroundUp.

Philip’s view is supported by Donaldson, who in a 2022 article for Econ3x3 wrote:

“In the context of South Africa’s high levels of unemployment, and deep inequalities in residential living conditions and access to services, a compelling case can be made for expanding special employment programmes that deliver public services – not just as employment relief, but also as part of the social development agenda.”

For Philip, the success of the schools programme is that it provides work in a management-rich environment; and schools are not the only such places in South Africa. “What is amazing is that we have shown it’s possible to do create meaningful work experience and real social value through these programmes,” she told GroundUp.

Philip is confident that six secure budgets and reasonable planning time, they could expand the programme to provide 2-million PES jobs and livelihood opportunities very quickly.

“Critics of the programme always ask for proof that people in the programme transition into other jobs - but there are no other jobs,” says Philip. Until there are, the PES has to be part of the landscape.

“What we lack in South Africa is that we approach unemployment at project scale - thousands of participants at a time. We need to get to the scale of millions.” The PES has shown this is possible, Philip says.

Correction on 2023-05-01 09:33

An earlier version of the article incorrectly stated that the Funda Wande programme was in Mpumalanga. It's in Limpopo.

TOPICS:  Economy Education Unemployment

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