Nearly a third of South Africa's workforce was unemployed in the third quarter of 2020, a 12-year high, as the continent's most advanced economy was battered by the Covid pandemic, according to government figures released Thursday.

Between July and September, the jobless rate surged by 7.5 percentage points to affect 30.8 percent of the workforce, the national statistics agency StatsSA said.

"In the 3rd quarter of 2020 there were significant movements in the South African labour market... which resulted in a significant increase of 7.5 percentage points in the unemployment rate to 30.8%," it said.

"This is the highest unemployment rate recorded since the start of the (Quarterly Labour Force Survey) in 2008."

In raw numbers, the tally of unemployed rose by 2.2 million in the third quarter over the April-June period, bringing the total to 6.5 million.

Young people were particularly badly hit.

Unemployment rate increased by nine percentage points among people aged 15-24, who accounted for nearly two-thirds of the jobless surge.

StatsSA said much of the increase in numbers was for technical reasons linked to the easing of coronavirus restrictions.

Millions of people too discouraged to even look for work during the country's mobility restrictions were not officially recorded as unemployed but instead defined as "not economically active".

This pent-up number thus added to the jobless figures when the restrictions were relaxed in the third quarter and they were able to register as unemployed.

Young people have borne the brunt of the jobless crisis in South Africa
Young people have borne the brunt of the jobless crisis in South Africa AFP / Phill Magakoe

The expanded definition of unemployment -- people who are employable but have stopped looking for work -- also rose by 1.1 percentage points during the third quarter to 43.1 percent.

South Africa imposed a strict lockdown on March 27 to help curb the spread of Covid-19.

While most measures have gradually been eased, restrictions on movement braked economic activity, pushing the country deeper into recession.

More recently, three million people "not economically active" have re-entered the job market, although the total number of employed has only increased by 543,000.

South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa this week warned of the risk of a second wave of coronavirus infections that could "choke" the "green shoots" of economic recovery.

Noting a "concerning" resurge in cases in certain areas, the president on Wednesday urged caution to avoid another lockdown that would "shut down the economy".

South Africa's economy is expected to shrink by more than seven percent this year due to the pandemic, its biggest contraction in almost 90 years.