Cold comfort

19 April 2013

IN a sense, it is surprising how little reaction the latest unemployment figures released by the Namibia Statistics Agency have evoked.


We woke up one fine morning to hear that the unemployment rate does not in fact stand at the horrendous rate of 51.2 percent as the 2008 figures indicated but is relatively lower at 27.4 percent, according to the 2012 Labour Force Survey.

This should be great cause for jubilation and one would therefore have expected people to be dancing in the streets and uncorking the champagne bottles in celebration.

However, you do not see anyone celebrating and instead we have seen a very muted response, even in the media.

This suggests a degree of scepticism about the new figures and even outright disbelief.

Perhaps we also feel slightly embarrassed to say what we really think about the NSA’s unemployment figures.

The latest figures mean that at 27.4 percent of our unemployment rate is only slightly higher than South Africa (25.5 percent), Spain (26.1 percent) and Greece (27 percent).

Theoretically, that should have given us quiet reassurance that the country is on the right track and envelop us in the warm glow of a sense of relative prosperity, but it does none of that.

No one really believes that our economy is as strong as that of our southern neighbour.

Spain and Greece have experienced rough times lately because of their debt problems, but still no one believes the economic fundamentals or prospects of Namibia are comparable to those countries.

The most striking aspect of the NSA’s 2012 Labour Force Survey is its complete and sheer coldness.

It shows a complete absence of any consideration for the human toll the country’s unemployment rate exacts on people.

The Government no doubt feels highly satisfied that the new 27.4 percent unemployment rate casts Namibia in a more favourable light.

It has however said very little about the subject, perhaps because it fears that crowing about the figures too much might provoke a public backlash.

The 51.2 percent unemployment rate shown by the 2008 Labour Force Survey had the potential to create significant social unrest, and Government is perhaps satisfied that the new figures have now put a lid on that threat.

No one questions the competence of, or the scientific methods used, by our Statistician-General Dr John Steytler or his statisticians at the NSA.

However, this in no way means that the latest unemployment figures truly reflect the very real suffering the majority of the people in this country endure in their daily lives.

The utter despair and sense of desperation that young people feel because of a youth unemployment rate of 49 percent is hardly surprising.

The fact that a quarter of the workforce earns N$1,000 or less a month is not something we should feel proud about.

Steytler very clearly stated the new figures did not mean that unemployment had fallen since the 2008 Labour Force Survey, which showed unemployment at 51.2 percent.

He explained that the NSA had simply used a different methodology from the survey carried out by the Ministry of Labour.

Interestingly, the summary of the report the NSA released seemed deliberately vague on the differences in methodology used, and only vaguely hinted at them here and there.

A telling message appeared on the SMS page of the English-language daily The Namibian.

The reader asked how the NSA could have based its definition of the labour force on those 15 years old and above when the legal working age in Namibia is 16 years. The law only allows those below 16 to work under highly restrictive conditions.

If nothing else, this simple but obvious question shows that they cannot fool the ordinary man in the street as easily as the politicians think.

The NSA had of course pre-empted the question by stating that the definition is in accordance with international practice.

However, this makes one wonder why we should conform to an international practice that contradicts our own laws. Let’s spell out the facts of life. To describe a subsistence farmer who grows mahangu on a tiny patch of land or has five cattle and one goat as employed is a cruel hoax of the worst kind.

Such a person ekes out an existence below the poverty datum line; his or her children probably suffer the ravages of malnutrition and go to bed every night crying tears because of empty stomachs.

To describe such people as employed is perverse and dishonest.

The same applies to many kapana sellers and other informal traders, and for the NSA to say they run a business and therefore have employment is a complete joke.

You wonder how the NSA can say with a straight face that it specifically enquired about people “helping without pay in a household business or doing work on a household farm, plot or the like; collecting water or wood for household sale or producing other goods for use”.

Why did it even bother asking these questions? No one that engages in such ‘economic activities’ makes a living wage and by definition one can therefore not describe them as employed.

We do not however blame the NSA. The Government no doubt gave the agency a clear and unmistakeable mandate to cook the books, fudge the figures and make the economic situation in Namibia look much better than it really is.

None of this reflects well on a country that likes to think of itself as relatively progressive and a country with caring and humane values.



The Windhoek Observer is an English-language weekly newspaper, published in Namibia by Paragon Investment Holding. It is the country's oldest and largest circulating weekly.

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