South Africa’s unemployment problem is no longer a hidden secret, it is a well-known wound on the South African landscape

If one includes those who have given up looking for a job, unemployment is now almost 44%. More terrifying is that amongst the youth unemployment, using that definition, it is almost 75%, translating that into numbers of youths per hundred who will not find or even look for jobs when they leave school are terrifying.  As a country, we need to find a solution. And writing that line is probably the easiest part of the process.

The amazing reality is that a superb solution is bringing in as many artisans into the workforce as possible. This includes not only training and upskilling artisans in hard skills, but giving them the basic skills in entrepreneurship as well. Artisans with these skills can help solve poverty and unemployment, build local economy which brings along all of the benefits of a solid work-force.

According to the National Development Plan to grow the economy to a point where it can ensure that all citizens have better working and living conditions by 2030, South Africa needs to produce over 30 000 artisans a year to meet labour demands. Currently, we produce around 15 000 a year.

Not only are we not producing enough artisans the average age of artisans in South Africa is around 55 years. This means not only do we have a shortage, but if we do not turn things around our dire situation will only get worse.

There are a number of points, that although seemingly obvious, need to be emphasized and …then re-emphasised. 

Artisans are a vital part of service-delivery in every community, whether rural or urban. Every community requires plumbers, glaziers, chefs, electricians, hairdressers and so the list goes on. And not only are these required but the greater their skill and training the greater their impact on their communities are. The artisanal sector is a crucial driver of economic growth and job creation and the second-largest employer in the developing world, behind only agriculture.

An additional plus in the artisan space is that it provides a unique opportunity to women for self-development and participation in the economy. The benefit is enhanced immeasurably when the area of choice is accompanied by an entrepreneurial component, it results in profitable, stable work that provides an income and can be flexi-time and ‘flexi- place’. The majority of women in South Africa are still not gaining in terms of job placements in the economy, according to Sean Jones, CEO of the Artisan Training Institute, a black empowerment company. He said, while legislation has been passed to push for more employment of women in the workplace, it appears SA is lagging when compared to its peers. In his view, the benefits employers are experiencing in training more women artisans include a widening of the skills net and in his experience, women perform well even in the engineering trades. “We are finding that more women are graduating as electricians, fitters and turners, and measurement, control and instrumentation technicians,” said Jones. He pointed out that one of the primary objectives of the International Labour Organisation is to see equal representation of women in traditionally segregated work environments from company boards, to the shop floor. Critically, this representation should include equal remuneration.

“We also need to promote women in the artisan industry. There will be a shortage in SA when the global economy emerges from the current doldrums – and training women could alleviate part of this worrying shortfall,” said Jones.

A third crucial gain for the country is that by growing artisanal businesses it helps expand prospects by diversifying opportunities thus stimulating local economic activity and creating new jobs that can help families and communities thrive. Technical artisans are critical to the delivery of infrastructure and support across every type of industry.

So why is there such a negative perception around working as an artisan in a technical trade in South Africa, despite the immense contribution of artisans? The low supply has been linked to ineffective career guidance, organisations cutting down on training development budgets, movement from the traditional apprenticeship system to learnerships, lack of opportunities for experiential learning, and unattractive salaries and wages. To make matters worse, high demand internationally for skilled workers have over the years led to widespread recruitment of experienced artisans by international recruitment agencies. As the shortage of artisanal skills is evidently not a simple problem; it is a systemic problem that has plagued South Africa for decades.

There is an additional aspect that needs to be recognised and acknowledged which is far less noticeable but is insidious and gnaws away at the social fabric. Educationist Volker Wedekind calls the distinctive feature of artisanal training right from its earliest incarnation a coercive and exploitative relationships, rather than benign relationships between a master craftsman and novice. This painful history has translated into a negative discourse that cannot be ignored. Many South Africans, grew up believing that artisans were 2nd  class participants in the economy or worse- artisans were only those who could not ‘do better’ or achieve at university. One certainly didn’t think of them when speaking of success or financial freedom.

A final reason for the reticence to either become an artisan or for artisans to upskill themselves into entrepreneurially minded private contractors is due to the failure rate of new SMMEs which is very high in South Africa. The high failure rate negatively impacts on the ability of new SMMEs to contribute meaningfully to job creation, economic growth and more equal income distribution in South Africa. The literature reveals that there are many reasons for small business failure. Failure factors are both internal and external. Internal factors are factors that are largely controllable by the organisation and include lack of management experience, lack of functional skills (e.g., planning, organizing, leading and controlling) and poor staff training and development and poor attitudes towards customers. External factors are factors largely uncontrollable by the organisation and include non-availability of a logistics chain and a high cost of distribution, competition, rising costs of doing business, lack of finance and crime. There is the need for personal development by the owners of new SMMEs especially in the area of business management skills through training. Owners of new SMMEs have to take greater responsibility for their own learning. Therefore, they need to create a positive attitude towards entrepreneurship and training. Training for new SMME owners on how to prepare business plans and business management needs to be undertaken. Furthermore, a “learning from peers” or mentorship approach should be instituted to help new SMMEs.


What is highlighted above is the horns of the dilemma:, artisans have the potential to contribute in a meaningful and substantive way to the economy but only if they are able to succeed as private contractors or SMME’s. Supporting small businesses and artisans requires fewer funds than subsidising large corporations. Small-scale interventions can bring more lasting benefits and activate positive feedback loops. This is the point where the offering by REAP intervenes, excels and enables. At REAP we believe that developing and supporting our artisans is the fastest and leanest way to grow the economy. We believe that since artisans already have the hard skills,  the opportunities, support and up-skilling that we provide allow them to enter the economy from rural to large city spaces with the greatest ease and then growing the economy at a rapid rate.

When looking at the challenges of SMME’s we realised that sustainability was a key to exponential growth, this guided us in refining and honing our skills to produce a program that would give the artisans and private contractors the greatest opportunity to succeed.

There are additional actions that need to be taken in South Africa as regards the development of its artisanal work-force. South Africa needs a new approach to service delivery founded on ‘co-production’, involving communities directly. Support of the artisans needs to be balanced with using the services of larger companies- this needs to be done as a matter of principle. This assists in creating opportunities to develop much needed artisanal jobs starting at the local level.

If or rather when, we succeed in the above, we have a much greater chance of attracting our youth back into this crucial area of the development of the South African economy. REAP is doing its part and we call on you to partner with us. There are so many opportunities to. The artisans will then become the ubiquitous superheros of the South African economy that they should be!