South Africa's unemployment rate hits record high in first quarterSouth Africa's unemployment rate hits record high in first quarter
Job seekers stand outside a construction

PRETORIA (Reuters) – South Africa’s unemployment rate rose to a record high in the first quarter of this year, driven by job losses in the formal and agriculture sectors, the national statistics agency said on Tuesday.

The country’s economy was already in recession before the coronavirus pandemic hit, with the strict lockdown implemented at the end of March further squeezing businesses and consumers.

The unemployment rate of 30.1% was up from 29.1% in the final quarter of last year, Statistics South Africa said its quarterly labour force survey, and higher than the 29.7% forecast in a Reuters poll.

“This is the first ever that we have hit the 30% mark,” Statistician General Risenga Maluleke said.

“It is true that is pre the COVID-19 lockdown. Can we expect more? Allow us to measure and we will come back and tell you.”

The outlook for the labour market remains gloomy with some of the country’s big firms such as steel producer ArcelorMittal South Africa Ltd, food producer Tiger Brands and third-biggest telecom operator Cell C already announcing plans to cut jobs.

There were 7.1 million people without jobs in the first quarter, up from 6.7 million in the prior quarter, Statistics South Africa said.

Under the expanded definition of unemployment, which includes people who have stopped looking for work, the rate was 39.7% compared with 38.7% in the previous quarter.

(Reporting by Mfuneko Toyona; Writing by Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo; Editing by Kirsten Donovan)