EPWP Exit Strategy for South African Cities

Public Employment Programmes (PEPs) are described as public-financed employment-generation tools implemented by various national governments across the globe as part of their respective national social security/protection systems (ILO, 2010). The main objective of these programmes is typically to alleviate poverty, unemployment and underemployment through the provision of infrastructure and public goods and services. While most countries have existing investment programmes that prioritise infrastructure assets and services, PEPs can be designed to complement them, by maximising the labour capacity required by their implementation processes. PEPs are independent of private sector involvement and funding, and are thus unaffected by the market-based employment capacities of the private sector that are often subject to market competition, and often negatively affected by economic crises (ILO, 2020).


One of the core objectives of the PEP model is to integrate vulnerable and unemployed people into the labour market by empowering them with employable experience and skills. This provides participants with predictable paid work while improving their income stability and security, usually over a short-term timeframe. Furthermore, PEPs can also be implemented to provide employment and income opportunities for skilled workers who have lost their jobs due to an economic crisis.


The South African Expanded Public Works Program (EPWP) is the nation’s PEP temporary work employment strategy aimed at poverty alleviation and income provision and offers a crucial entry into formal employment for unemployed South Africans. Samson (2018) notes that it is important that PEPs are viewed as a key component in completing the social security/protection intent of the government. PEPs must be viewed in relation to indigent policies, the various social grants and other programmes available to the poor. In the face of increasing unemployment and South Africa’s skewed socio-economic environment, PEPs have played a central role in cushioning millions of citizens from poverty and the indignity of not being able to work for pay. The country’s EPWP is an employment programme that provides more than just income. Philip (2015) describes the positive outcomes on communities through the impact of income, the impact of participation in work, and the impact of the infrastructure and services delivered to the communities through these programmes.


The EPWP is also an important rung on the ladder of employment and income-generating initiatives. Unfortunately, PEPs often do not guarantee long-term employment or income-generating activities. As a result, the role of PEPs is often criticised, on the basis that participants are likely to exit into the same conditions they were in before the PEP. The South African EPWP has been criticised for offering short-term ‘poverty relief’ that creates short-term income dependency instead of stimulating the long-term employability of beneficiaries. When the EPWP in South Africa was started, it had two main principles. The first was that all government departments would create productive employment opportunities through labour-intensive methods of infrastructure provision; and that through government procurement, a concerted effort would be made to support SMMEs, and work opportunities would also be created in environmental and social programmes (Mngomezulu & Shange, 2016). The second principle required that unemployed people would be given work experience; that skills and training would be provided to participants while on the programme; and that workers would be assisted with employment once they exited from the programme (Mngomezulu & Shange, 2016). It has been acknowledged that the exit strategies have not had the positive outcomes that were expected. A review of exit strategies over the different phases of the EPWP in South Africa revealed that the exit-strategy thinking was based on an assumption that the job market would be able to absorb those who exited the programme, which is sadly not the case (Mngomezulu & Shange, 2016). The demonstrable successes of cities in implementing EPWPs are in part the source of their major challenge, that being the demand for permanent employment by recipients on exit.


This challenge is not exclusive to the South African EPWP. According to the ILO (2012), ‘exiting’ and ‘graduating’ participants from PEPs is a problem faced by many PEPs in different locations across the globe. Some of the key questions that arise in considering the exit of PEP recipients include: “How is it decided whether someone should no longer participate, who decides it, when is this decision taken and on what basis is it made?” (ILO, 2012). The answers to these questions are intricately linked to the nature of PEPs and the purpose they serve in their environments, as well as to the design principles behind the PEP and its various components.