The Church’s response in times of increased joblessness and crime


Statistics South Africa released its employment figures in late July. The data shows that unemployment has increased and the job market remains stagnant. Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya draws links between joblessness and increased crime rates, calling on the Church to make a meaningful contribution in accompanying the faithful during difficult economic times.

One of the most overused phrases in South Africa today is that youth unemployment “is a ticking time bomb”. High unemployment rates, the lack of educational opportunity, poor preparedness for the world of work in a post-industrial society, and the anger of exclusion among the youth makes them particularly volatile.

In late July, Statistics South Africa (StatsSA) released a report showing that the unemployment rate had risen to 29% of the labour force. This was up from 27.6% in the first three months of this year.

StatsSA’s most recent labour force survey shows that 455,000 more people are unemployed than in the first quarter of the year, while only 21,000 new jobs have been created. The unemployment rate for youths aged 15-24, who are not in employment or in education and training, increased to 32.3% – up from 31.6% a year ago.

Reflecting on the 25 years of South Africa’s democracy at the University of Johannesburg on 24 July, President Cyril Ramaphosa admitted that despite the political achievements of the past 25 years, unemployment remains stubbornly high and economic freedom continues to be elusive.

The unemployment rate for youths aged 15-24 … increased to 32.3% – up from 31.6% a year ago.

He added that South Africans could expect more job losses because the workforce lacks the skills necessary for the economy of the future: “Many more people are going to lose jobs. And they’ll lose jobs because of technology, globalisation, climate change and a whole number of challenges like low economic growth, as we have seen, in our own country.”

The link between unemployment and crime

South Africa has one of the world’s highest crime rates. In 2018, BusinessTech reported a 1.5% decline in the overall number of crimes reported, from 2.12 million incidents in 2017 to 2.09 million cases in 2018. Despite this, the figures for murder, cash-in-transit heists, bank robberies, hijackings and stock theft increased.

There is enough evidence to suggest that there is a causal link between unemployment and the propensity to commit crime. Social scientists have, over the years, sought to develop theories explaining why the most excluded and marginalised in a society are more likely to commit crime.

The Strain Theory of the 1930s states that societal structures pressure individuals to pursue certain lifestyle goals. When individuals lack the legitimate means to achieve them, they are more likely to resort to criminal activity to realise these goals.

This theory does not address the full complexity of the links between unemployment, its psychological and financial effects, and propensity to commit crime, but it helps to explain why crime rates rise when the economy contracts. There is also evidence to show a correlation between violent crimes and high levels of poverty and inequality.

The street corners of South Africa’s slums and informal settlements are fuelling stations for the unemployed, unemployable, hopeless and substance-dependent youth. Their shared anger and frustration over their lack of economic opportunities is fertile feeding ground for petty criminals and organized crime syndicates.

The unemployment figures announced by StatsSA, and Ramaphosa’s warning that we can expect more job losses, suggest that we are heading for a new wave of unrest in the streets and at home.

The unemployment figures announced by StatsSA … suggest that we are heading for a new wave of unrest.

Is the Church ready?

The faith community might not have the physical means to change the economic landscape, but as a refuge for the afflicted, it can expect to hear the cries of desperation and frustration from the pews.

Pastors will most certainly find themselves ministering to the victims of unemployment and crime, and may hear confessions from perpetrators of violence that times like these tend to unleash.

The Church will have to comfort those whose lives have become negatively affected by retrenchments and business failure. It will need to find relevant and compassionate ways to explain to the hungry and thirsty that despite their circumstances, they are “blessed,” to use the language of the beatitudes.

The Church will need to find relevant and compassionate ways to explain to the hungry and thirsty that despite their circumstances, they are “blessed.”

Too often the Church’s leadership and some of its members criticise those who fall prey to the “prosperity gospel” – that financial wealth is evidence of God’s blessing – without fully appreciating that tough times can make people desperate and susceptible to anyone who promises a better tomorrow.

Similarly, a Church that focuses its energy on theological and philosophical debates while families are falling apart because of violence, drugs, joblessness and hopelessness is ill-prepared for the challenges ahead.

The times demand a more tender Church that is responsive to the everyday hurts of its children, rather than one preoccupied with statutes and dogma that appear unconcerned with the temporal and physical challenges of the faithful. A Church that is truly with the people needs to be visible on public forums that work for a more equitable distribution of the country’s wealth and the creation of a robust economy that is prepared for the challenges of the future.

In response, Pope Francis – who took for himself the name of Francis of Assisi, the saint who served God through his care for the poor and nature – has also called for a Church and society that shows “solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters. This option entails recognizing the implications of the universal destination of the world’s goods…[and] demands before all else an appreciation of the immense dignity of the poor in the light of our deepest convictions as believers” (Laudato’ Si, 158).

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* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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The Church’s response in times of increased joblessness and crime

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