THE DEBATE ABOUT UNEMPLOYMENT in South Africa has for some time tended to concentrate on the levels involved. Indeed, these seem to be extradaordinarily high. A 1998 study (Klasen and Woolard 1998, Table 1, p.10) suggested that unemployment is in the range 12.7 to 20.2 per cent on a ‘strict’ interpretation and in the range 28.6 to 32.1 per cent according to a ‘broader’ conception of unemployment. These figures have seemed so extreme that various authors have questioned whether they are credible or not (Standing, Sender and Weeks 1996). The sorts of questions which have been asked concentrate firstly on the issue of how these large masses of unemployed manage to survive and indeed eke out a living. It has been suggested that most of them must be engaged in informal activities (and hence not be unemployed) if they manage to make a living. Secondly it has been asked whether the ‘unemployment’ that is recorded in the data sets on which these estimates are based corresponds in any meaningful way with the economic concept of unemployment. Thirdly it might be asked how society has managed to cope with these levels of unemployment. These are all important questions and we will try to address at least some of them indirectly in this paper.