While the zenith of the gold mining times in the Johannesburg area is over — gold was the main reason behind the city’s founding in the first place — the people working in Johannesburg have managed to preserve the city’s leading position within the South African economy. Johannesburg and its province Gauteng are the largest contributors to the national GDP and the largest clusters of formal employment in South Africa. For many people in other South African provinces, trying to get a job in Johannesburg is a very feasible option.
Johannesburg today shares many common traits with other modern expat magnets around the world, with its services and trade heavy economy and a powerful financial sector. Johannesburg is also an important center for South Africa’s IT, media, and broadcasting sectors. Nonetheless, mining and manufacturing still play a large role in the city’s economy. Furthermore, heavy industries such as concrete and steel are among the major employers of the city.
While you might expect that the economic heart of the city and the main focal point of people working in Johannesburg is the city center, it is actually the suburb of Sandton to the north of the city that is the main driving force behind the metro region’s economy. After the economic downturn in the mid-1990s and the urban blight that directly affected companies working in Johannesburg’s Central Business District (CBD), many closed their shops and relocated to Sandton. Astonishingly, the JSE Securities Exchange, Johannesburg’s stock exchange, was among the businesses to relocate.
Today, Sandton is home to some of the most prestigious offices in the entire metro area, and many multinationals opt for a Sandton-based operation. Another mainstay of Sandton’s economy is being the home of one of Africa’s largest shopping malls, Sandton City. The suburb’s name is well-known even to those who are not even working in Johannesburg: as a major convention center, it is the host of businesspeople working in a variety of different sectors. Needless to say that the many luxurious hotels are among those that profit from this fact.
We have already covered the immense problem of unemployment in the entire nation in our article on working in South Africa. In Gauteng, the unemployment rate was around 30% in the fourth quarter of 2014. The social and economic issues that arise through this lamentable fact are very obvious.
Among the biggest challenges both for the population and the city administration is the immense size of the informal sector, which has been described as one of the largest worldwide. The problems of this sector are manifold: trying to abolish or criminalize it is absolutely not an option, as a huge number of people depend on the income generated by this cash-only sector which mainly focuses on street vendor activities and unskilled labor. The city and its economy simply cannot provide enough jobs that the many unskilled laborers could fill. Still, the city administration has included the creation of 5 million jobs until 2020 in their Integrated Development Plan.
At the same time, while a portion of the revenue generated in the informal sector also flows back into the formal sector, there is a loss of tax revenue Johannesburg could use to further improve its infrastructure and public housing situation. Another problem is the fact that working in Johannesburg’s vast informal sector is not a particularly sustainable source of income. However, for better or worse, the informal sector secures the livelihood of a large part of the city’s population.
Another challenge which is not limited to Johannesburg, but affects all of South Africa, is brain drain. Highly qualified personnel with years of training and/or experience, often gained outside of South Africa, frequently see no point in working in Johannesburg when they could just as well make a more than comfortable living abroad. This leads to a lack of skilled professionals in key positions.
However, brain drain is also the largest source of opportunities for expats in Johannesburg. With the right set of skills and a convincing CV, you should not face too much adversity on your road towards working in Johannesburg, an experience that will no doubt pay off.
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