South Africa will hold national and provincial elections on 29 May 2024. With an official unemployment rate of 32.1%, most political parties have job creation at the top of their agendas.

In an April 2024 interview on South African news channel eNCA, anchor Dan Moyane asked Africa Check to investigate a particular employment claim – that the government’s expanded public works programme, or EPWP, had created 14 million jobs since 2004.

As requested, we’ve done the “number crunching”, but also looked at the history of the programme.

Public employment in South Africa

The EPWP is South Africa’s main public employment programme. It was launched in 2004, to provide “poverty and income relief through temporary work for the unemployed to carry out socially useful activities”.

Celebrating the 20th anniversary of the programme in 2024, president Cyril Ramaphosa claimed that the EPWP had created a total of 14 million “work opportunities”. Ramaphosa also leads the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

A “work opportunity” may not be what comes to mind when you think of “a job”, but it counts as employment by many definitions, including those used by Statistics South Africa, the country’s data agency, and the International Labour Organization.

Dr Kate Philip, programme lead for the Presidential Employment Stimulus, a public employment programme separate from the EPWP, previously told Africa Check that the term “work opportunity” is used to distinguish between opportunities provided by specific public employment programmes and “‘jobs’ in the wider labour market”.

These work opportunities are often relatively short-term and do not offer the same benefits and pay as other public sector employment. For example, the EPWP pays a minimum wage of R15.16 per hour, which is lower than the national minimum wage of R27.58 per hour. However, the EPWP sees these opportunities as a vital way of providing income and alleviating poverty for the otherwise unemployed.

Creating 14 million jobs in 20 years?

To have created 14 million opportunities in the 20 years since its inception, the EPWP would have had to create an average of around 700,000 opportunities per year. How plausible is this?

In 2008, four years after its launch, the EPWP celebrated the milestone of creating over 1 million work opportunities, a target originally set for 2009. Although this exceeded expectations, this is not a rate that would create 14 million jobs in 20 years.

The pace has accelerated in the years since. In the 2022/23 financial year (April 2022 to March 2023), the programme provided a total of 990,686 work opportunities, and in some years has provided over a million opportunities in a single year. At the time of the fourth, five-year phase of the EPWP (the years 2019 to 2024), the programme had set a target of creating just over 5 million work opportunities over this period.

But was this target met, and was the improvement fast enough?

Ramaphosa misses opportunity to claim a higher figure

The Department of Public Works, which oversees the EPWP, publishes quarterly updates on the number of work opportunities, but does not keep a running total, and has not released a public report on the overall status of the EPWP since 2013.

Africa Check contacted the department, which provided its confirmed tallies of annual EPWP work opportunities since the programme began. These included currently unpublished totals for 2023/24.

These figures show that the EPWP has provided a total of 15,204,632 work opportunities.

Published by Africa Check