South Africa has among the highest rates of inequality and unemployment globally. The bottom 40% of the population holds just 7% of income compared to 16% in other emerging markets, and the bottom 60% of households depend on social grants. In Quarter 3 of 2021, the unemployment rate was 34.9% and 46.6% using the expanded definition of unemployment, which includes discouraged job seekers. According to the World Bank, South Africa would need to create 600,000 jobs every year to tackle unemployment. However, the economy is shedding, not creating jobs, a situation made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in four times more job losses for low-wage workers compared to high-wage workers. At the same time, the number of individuals entering the labour market for the first time significantly increases each year.
In his State of Nation Address, President Ramaphosa called upon South Africans “to forge a new consensus” and to work together “to revitalise the economy”. He spoke of the deep structural problems in South Africa’s economy and the need “to enable businesses to grow and create jobs alongside expanded public employment and social protection”. This echoes the commitments in the 2011 Green Economy Accord, which included promoting economic development, creating job opportunities (especially for young people) and forming “a social compact on the transition”. However, the reality has been different from the rhetoric and provides lessons for going forward.
The green economy refers to two interlinked developmental outcomes: growing the green industry sector and shifting towards cleaner industries and sectors across the economy as a whole. A transition to greener economies offers a solution to South Africa’s structural socio-economic challenges, especially in the natural resource management, agriculture, transport, and energy sectors.
Between 2004 and 2017, the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) South Africa has created almost a million work opportunities, of which 13% were “green jobs”. However, these green jobs “are often far from being decent jobs”, as they do not pay as well as jobs in the coal industry, which has led to a reluctance from trade unions to embrace the green economy: “The country can’t create green jobs in provinces such as Limpopo or Mpumalanga, where coal mines will close and put 90 000 workers at risk”. 
In cities, such as Emalahleni, communities are at the centre of this conversation, as the local economy is inordinately reliant on coal. These communities also deal with pervasive environmental and health challenges. The situation is further exacerbated by high unemployment, retrenchments, and limited opportunities for economic participation for youth, many of whom have trained in TVET colleges to participate in the coal sector. This highlights that a green transition affects not only jobs but also the education and skills development eco-system. As Eskom states, a just transition refers to “the gradual movement towards lower carbon technologies” without having a negative impact on “society, jobs and livelihoods”.
For the past 15 years, through the jointly hosted EPWP Reference Group, the South African Cities Network (SACN) and the Department of Public Works has been researching and reporting on the progress made and innovations in the EPWP. The 2019/20 EPWP report stated that “not enough attention [is being] paid to developing projects that provide jobs and training simultaneously”. Although concerns are often raised about an insufficient budget for skills development, some cities have been able to find a balance. Among SACN’s network of cities, the City of Ekurhuleni remains a leader in reported training and represents a significant proportion (65%) of the total person-years of training across the nine cities. It has provided training opportunities through the Vuk’uphile project (construction skills and skills on running a construction company) and the Plumbers Training project (plumbing skills, NQF level 3 qualification). Training opportunities could be further improved through additional financial assistance for training and greater collaboration with the private sector. The City of Cape Town has offered unemployed graduates training in the environment/green economy sector, resulting in some participants being employed as technical support in the water and sanitation, and transport departments. These projects highlight how the EPWP can be leveraged to offer meaningful long-term impact to its beneficiaries.
As we contemplate the benefits that a greener economy and green jobs might offer, prioritising long-term wellbeing is critical. For households in mining towns such as Emalahleni, this means providing more secure jobs that pay enough to ensure household wellbeing and gradual upward mobility. As South Africa sits with the twin perils of inequality and unemployment, a green transition provides the opportunity to interrogate the quality of jobs created and how all of society might leverage the green economy to reduce unemployment and narrow inequality.