In South Africa, unemployment has been recognised as a major social, economic, and political concern. In 2004, the rate of unemployment in the country was 41% (McCord 2017, p-565). In the context of chronic mass under- and unemployment, South Africa established the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) to provide work opportunities and income support to poor and unemployed people.

The EPWP has been successful in creating mass employment since 2004, through Phases 1 and 2. The government and state-owned enterprises use the EPWP to create employment opportunities through the delivery of public infrastructure, as well as the provision of socially useful services. The project targets working age persons, with an emphasis on the participation of youth, women and people with disabilities. EPWP Phase 3 (2014-2019) aims to create six million work opportunities by 2019, with an approximate budget of USD 11.4 billion.

The pros and cons of public works programmes

Public works programmes (PWPs) have been a popular instrument in many developing and middle-income countries to provide social safety nets following shocks such as natural disasters or economic crisis. They are designed to create short-term employment to address seasonal unemployment.

PWPs are subject to several criticisms. According to DFAT (2017), “– for a range of reasons – conventional public works are a sub-optimal long-term social protection response to chronic poverty, and that such programmes do not themselves deliver sustainable employment”.

According to McCord (2012), “PWP entails the creation or repair of assets, typically ponds, irrigation systems or rural access roads. Depending on the relevance of the assets selected and quality of implementation, these have the potential to enhance household, local, regional or even national productivity. (…) There is, to date, little evidence to confirm that the creation of assets through public works has made a significant or sustained impact on productivity or growth generally”.

South Africa’s EPWP: Innovations and challenges

South Africa’s EPWP was designed with several innovations to address above limitations, including the ambition of equipping participants with skills so that they can enter the labour market after exiting from their short-term employment with EPWP.

Key innovations:

  • The EPWP is distributed into four productive sectors: Infrastructure, non-state and community work programmes, environment and culture, and the social sector:
    1.  The infrastructure sector includes construction and the rehabilitation and maintenance of rural and low-volume roads, schools, and clinics.
    2. The non-state and community work programmes attempt to match community needs and available labour in projects like community gardens, support services to Early Childhood Development centres, and support to schools.
    3. The environment and culture sector projects create work opportunities in the areas of sustainable land-based livelihoods, waste management, parks, coastal management, and sustainable energy and tourism.
    4. The social sector works are focused on social services, including education, nutrition, and safety.

In 2017, a total of 688,829 employment opportunities were created in these sectors. 32% of them were in infrastructure, 20% in environment and culture, 20% in social, 8% in non-state sector and 20% in community work sector.

  • The EPWP has found new ways to absorb labour, stimulate employment across sectors, and implement experimental approaches to creating additional employment. This has been done, in part, by mandating all Ministries to create additional jobs by promoting labour intensification and absorbing surplus labour in programmes to address a range of societal challenges (McCord, 2017). In this way, the responsibility of absorbing surplus labour is diversified throughout government. To stimulate Ministries to contribute to the EPWP’s objectives, an ‘incentive grant’ is made available.
  • The EPWP is unique in that it offers temporary jobs in home and community-based care. The caregivers also receive training during their employment to enable them to find jobs after they exit the programme. This initiative represents a recognition of care giving services as paid jobs.
  • The integration of skills development training with EPWP is a prominent innovation, however its success has been limited. In the initial phase, provision of such training was mandatory for implementing agencies. Later, this requirement was withdrawn for reasons explained in the “challenges” section below.

The EPWP has been successful in many ways as outlined above. However, the programme has also faced challenges that compromise its social protection functions. Some of these challenges have been recognised and addressed by the programme.

Key challenges:

  • The initial phases of the EPWP combined skills development training with short-term employment. The expectation was that the participants would exit with a higher level of skills and find jobs in the market. However, the training component of EPWP is not adequate to lead to the acquisition of higher skills (McCord, 2017). As a result, many participants return to unemployed status upon exiting the programme.
  • Furthermore, the EPWP is a supply driven programme; the scale of the programme is determined by the capacity of creating opportunities rather than by demand. It is, therefore, unable to provide employment opportunities to all unemployed adults who need to work (EPRI, 2015).
  • The requirement to skills development training created an additional burden for Ministries that were already struggling to deliver on their core mandates, which compromised implementation. Moreover, the related ministries faced a lack of management capacity to provide training when the programme was implemented to scale. Therefore, the third phase of the EPWP removed training as a formal requirement of implementation, delinking training and skills development from EPWP employment.
  • The focus on performance against ‘work opportunity’ targets for the implementing Ministries has promoted incentives to create EPWP jobs, which resulted in the substitution of workers displaced from existing formal jobs with EPWP workers. The renaming of pre-existing jobs as EPWP jobs, and the re-categorisation of voluntary workers receiving sub-market rate stipends as ‘EPWP employees’, does not necessarily contribute to additional employment (McCord, 2017).
  • EPWP employees can be viewed as alternative workers with inferior terms and conditions (not conforming to ‘descent work’ terms of employment), seeing the creation of a two-tier labour market, which is problematic and potentially also risks deterioration in the services provided (Philip in McCord, 2017).


The EPWP has attempted to address common limitations of PWPs by implementing innovative methods and approaches, which has seen it achieve significant success. This includes creating short term employment at a large scale, diversifying employment in various sectors, creating incentives and formal obligations for various Ministries to share responsibility, and creating employment in social services such as early childhood education and care giving.

Even so, the EPWP demonstrates that PWPs alone cannot resolve national structural unemployment and need to be complemented by longer-term measures, such as economic development policies and educational reforms (ILO, 2018).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           Authors: Aline Peres and Fazley E. Mahmud

Are you interested in the topic of linking social protection to employment more widely? Join the online community: Social Protection for Employment Community (SPEC).

This blog post is published as part of the Social Protection for Employment Series in partnership with SPEC (Social Protection for Employment - Community). SPEC, established by Australian DFAT and German GIZ, promotes South-South learning on social protection for employment. This series presents contributions focused on social protection and sustainable employment.



Department Public Works, Republic of South Africa (n.d.). Welcome to EPWP. Accessible:

DFAT (2017). Guidance Note on Options to Link Social Protection to Sustainable Employment. Accessible:

Henderson, S. (2017). Presentation on Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP), Social Protection Hub Jakarta. Accessible:

ILO (2018). South Africa: Expanded Public Works Programme. Accessible:;jsessionid=Pnf_i-V99z3tBzZ2f6me0CbnwFRuBW_JHGbbGa9hgpGXWRcjPn3K!1588761716?ressource.ressourceId=55007

McCord, A. (2017). ‘”The role of public works in addressing poverty: Lessons from recent developments in public works programming”, in Lawson, D.; Ado-Kofie L.; and Hulme D. (ed.), What works for Africa’s Poorest? Programmes and policies for the Extreme Poor, Practical Action Publishing, Rugby, UK, pp. 141-164. Accessible:

McCord, A. (2012). Public works and social protection in sub-Saharan Africa. Do public works work for the poor?, United Nations University Press

McCord, A (2012). The politics of social protection: why are public works programmes so popular with governments and donors?, ODI, UK, Accessible:

SACN/South African Cities Network (2017). The State of the Expanded Public Works Programme in South African Cities 2016/17, A report of the Expanded Public Works Programme Reference Group, Johannesburg: SACN.

Samson, M. (2015). Implementation Evaluation of EPWP in the Social Sector: Phase II (2009/10-2013/14), Accessible:

Western Cape Government (2018). Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP). Accessible:

Social Protection Programmes: 
  • All programmes - General
  • Social assistance
    • Social assistance - General
  • Labour market programs/Public work/Productive inclusion
    • Labour market programs/Public work/Productive inclusion - General
    • Training
Social Protection Topics: 
  • Benefits level
  • Coverage
  • Political economy
  • Programme design and implementation
Cross-Cutting Areas: 
  • Housing and infrastructure
  • Labour market
    • Labour market - General
    • Unemployment
  • Social inclusion
  • South Africa
  • Sub-Saharan Africa
The views presented here are the author's and not's