Global unemployment has risen in the past few years. Spatial data are required to address the problem effectively. South African unemployment literature focused mostly at a national level of spatial analysis. Some literature refer to spatial aspects that affect unemployment trends, but does not assign a location, e.g. a suburb or municipality. Little research has compared spatial patterns of unemployment over time. This article provides a synopsis of the available South African geographic data to address the challenge of unemployment. Data sets from official national surveys and censuses are compared by spatial extent and associated attributes. The representation of change over time is explored and aggregation to a common boundary such as municipalities is suggested to overcome modifiable areal unit problems. Census data are spatially more detailed than labour force survey data, and census data from pre-1991 might not reflect the post-apartheid labour trends effectively. It is recommended that data from census 1991, 1996 and 2001, as well as Community Survey 2007 be used to understand detailed spatial trends of South African unemployment. Knowing the location of the unemployed directs the spending of development funding and job-creation interventions.