The number of unemployed people increased “by 701,000 to 7.2 million compared to the third quarter of 2020,” a Stats SA statement said.
“The movement… resulted in a significant increase of 1.7 percentage points in the official unemployment rate to 32.5 percent,” it added.
South Africa, the continent’s most industrialised economy, was already in recession when the coronavirus pandemic hit last March.
Months of rolling restrictions to stem the virus have stifled economic activity and bled tens of thousands of jobs.
Most of the latest unemployment increase was seen among workers aged between 25 and 34, followed by the 15-24 group.
Most job losses were observed in finance, community and social services, and manufacturing.
The 32.5 percent unemployment rate is the highest ever registered by South Africa’s quarterly labour force survey, surpassing the previous record of 30.8 percent in the third quarter of last year.
Stats SA also said however that a benchmark of underlying joblessness that is not included in the official unemployment rate showed a slight fall.
The “expanded” unemployment rate, which includes people too discouraged to actively seek work, fell by half a percentage point to 42.6 percent at the end of 2020.
The joblessness figures reflect “the dire consequences of the strict COVID-19 lockdown measures” that “hurt business profitability and confidence, forcing companies to restructure their operations,” and lay off workers, Nedbank analysts said.
The figures were released on the eve of an annual national budget speech, during which the government details spending plans for the coming financial year.
Unions have planned strikes nationwide to protest stiffer economic challenges and job losses.
“The situation is getting worse,” said Frank Nxumalo, spokesman for the Federation of Union South Africa (FEDUSA).
“There are more people of working age who are unemployed than those employed, which means the labour market is not creating any jobs,” he noted.
The International Monetary Fund estimates that South Africa’s economy contracted by eight percent last year, and has forecast growth of just three percent for 2021.