Unemployment is among South Africa’s most serious challenges. Youth unemployment is a bloodbath with close to 60% of South Africa’s young people unemployed. There is no doubt that young people will also be the most affected by the economic crisis resulting from the Covid 19 pandemic. It’s clear that our catastrophe of youth unemployment is set to get much worse in the context of Covid 19.
According to a recent International Labour Organisation (ILO) report, more than 40% of young people globally were working in sectors most affected by the pandemic; and close to 75% were informally employed. The report paints a dismal picture about the future of youth job security.
The global media is awash with articles trying to predict how the world will look after the Covid-19 crisis has passed. But in most cases analysts are doing little more than projecting their own political hopes into the future.
We see a similar tendency here at home. Sadly for young people with concerns about employment, neo-liberals imagine the world after Covid-19 as one with in which the regulations imposed on capital are loosened, trade unions have their power restricted and the free market is the engine of growth. Sadly, as I show later, neoliberals tend to have the upper hand after a crisis.
Socialists and social democrats look forward to the opposite. For the left the crisis has shown the limits of the markets and the future will see more regulation of the market and a greater role for the state in ensuring social welfare.
For the environmentalists the shutdowns around the world have shown that it is possible to intervene in the economy and society in radical ways that could open the door to a much greener future. Many have argued that, for instance, there is no need to go back to the dependence on private motor vehicles and that green forms of public transport will be developed.
But projecting one’s own political hopes into the future is not the same thing as doing serious analysis.
We need to bear in mind that serious global youth unemployment also resulted from the economic crisis of 2008. Around the world, and here at home, many left economists gleefully predicted that the financial crisis of 2008 would lead to social democratic or even socialist outcomes.
The reality, as we all know, is that the crisis ended up with a global surge of the far right. And this is what we should all be worried about – not just young people with concerns about unemployment.
In any crisis it is usually the social forces that are best organised that are able to exploit the crisis to most effectively advance their agenda. And while the left has grown in much of the world, especially among young people and intellectuals, the reality is that the right is dominant in many countries including the United States, to the United Kingdom, India, Brazil, the Philippines and Hungary.
Here at home right wing ideas, like xenophobia and a general turn towards authoritarianism, are being rapidly normalised in the highest reaches of the state.
While many who have are focused on the socio-political pulse of the country are rightfully concerned about how people on the margins will be affected by a catastrophic loss of jobs, we should remain alert about the possibilities of ‘othering’ in this context.
History shows that in times of epidemics it is very common for minorities or foreigners to be scapegoated for the crisis. When the black death devastated Europe in the 14th Century Jewish communities were repeatedly scapegoated.
There seems to be an irrationality lodged deep in the human psyche that associated outbreaks of serious disease with the ‘other’. The lessons of this history gives no grounds for progressive optimism in South Africa.
It is quite likely that, around the world, it will be the right with its neoliberal and anti-worker stance that could benefit. In addition and worryingly, the right also comes with the toxicity of xenophobia, racist and religious intolerance.
And, of course, we are not just facing a pandemic. The lockdown measures implemented to restrict the spread of Covid-19 have done massive damage to economies.
Numerous commentators have argued that the coming recession could be as deep and as devastating as the global recession of the 1930s. In this period most countries around the world experienced a rise in unemployment. Countries that were the producers of raw materials and reliant on international trade were particularly badly hit. This included countries like Chile, Australia and Canada and nations which were self-sufficient often avoided the worst costs of the great depression.
In the US, the worst of the great depression ended in 1933, and unemployment rates started to fall. However, the rate of unemployment remained high in the US, and a second “double-dip” recession in 1936 caused it to increase again.
The recessions of the 1930s did lead to a huge growth in left wing politics, including social democracy, socialism and anarchism. But as we all know in the end it was the far right that ultimately won power in many societies, including, most infamously, Italy and Germany. This is a worrying lesson to note for us in South Africa.
The left argued that the correct response to the economic crisis was to build international solidarity among the working class, and to support anti-colonial movements in the colonies.
The right argued that its mixture of racism and authoritarianism would protect national interests. That politics ended in carnage on the battle field, and the death camps.
We don’t know how long the Covid-19 crisis will last, or how many lives it will take. We also don’t know how severe the coming recession will be, and how long it will last.
But we do know, for sure, that we are heading for a serious economic crisis. We also know that after the years of looting under Jacob Zuma our state has very little in the way of resources to be used to stave off the worst effects of the crisis.
So as we think about serious challenges like youth unemployment, we also need to spare a thought about a future in which the army remains on the streets to contain food riots. This might sound dystopian but it is far from unimaginable.
The key factor that will determine whether or not we come through this crisis with greater commitments to solidarity or even more dangerous and authoritarian forms of toxic nationalism will be the strength of the different political forces contesting the battle of ideas.
In the United States Trump’s racism and xenophobia, with his crude hostility to Mexicans, Muslims and Chinese people, could well win the day. The same is true of Narendra Modi’s fascism in India. In Brazil Jair Bolsonaro looks weak, but the racist and authoritarian right-wing ideas that bought him to power continue to flourish.
In South Africa there are ominous signs – people like Tito Mboweni, Faith Mazibuko, Aaron Motsoaledi and Patricia de Lille – whose rush to build a border wall made Trump look like a lackadaisical xenophobe.
These are people with real power in society and there is a real danger that the state will respond to the coming economic crisis by trying to scapegoat African and Asian migrants.
There is a strong current in the ruling party, and in the state, that hold equally dangerous anti-democratic views.
In South Africa and globally there is a genuine risk that we may come out of the immediate Covid-19 crisis with a serious economic crisis in which toxic forms of nationalisms flourish. For us that could take the form of an increasingly xenophobic and authoritarian state.
It is vital that all progressive forces, especially those that, like social movements and trade unions, speak for a mass base, oppose the potential slide into neoliberalism, xenophobia and authoritarianism with all the force at their disposal.
There are a number of challenges that we need to be focused on – foremost, in my opinion, are job losses by masses of young people. Employment and Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi’s recent comment that the department’s job creation plans will be dealt with at a later stage as part of an integrated strategy doesn’t inspire much hope of a coherent and concrete plan.
It is vital that the progressive forces engage the battle of ideas, and offer and influence a credible vision of a future based on solidarity. Progressive forces will need to do all it takes to ensure that a post Covid SA focuses on the needs of those at the base of our social strata. Saving and creating jobs for young people is key to ensuring the cohesiveness of our fragile society.
The alternative is too ghastly to contemplate for all, especially those who are likely to face a further unemployment bloodbath
Imraan Buccus is senior research associate at ASRI, research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and academic director of a university study abroad program on political transformation