South Africans’ rising debt: Covid was the straw that broke the camel’s back

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Government infighting and policy paralysis are having a direct impact on South Africa’s economic prospects, which is hitting ordinary people where it hurts – their pockets.

While the South African economy may be creaking up a gear or two as it recovers from the economic trough induced by Covid-19 and subsequent lockdowns, the fallout continues.

The number of South Africans looking for help in managing their debt has soared, with enquiries at South Africa’s largest debt counsellor up 31% compared with the first quarter of last year. Aside from the obvious problem of joblessness, real incomes have fallen markedly over the past five years, pushing consumers into distress.

“Nominal income is 7% higher compared with 2016 levels, but when cumulative inflation of 24% is factored in, real incomes have shrunk by 17% in five years,” says Benay Sager, head of DebtBusters, the debt support company. “Many consumers are compelled to borrow to make up the shortfall.”

The DebtBusters’ 2021 Q1 Debt Index, which tracks client trends quarter on quarter and over the past five years, found that people with take-home pay of more than R20,000 a month who are applying for debt counselling are spending more than 60% of their monthly net income to service debt. They have a persistently high debt-to-income ratio of more than 130%.

On average, unsecured debt is 53% higher than in 2016. For those with a net income of R20,000 or more, unsecured debt levels have increased by 76%. For these consumers, unsecured debt is the most common way to supplement the decline in real income.

Stats SA’s latest Liquidations and Insolvencies report supports the notion that things have been tough for a number of years. The number of liquidations has remained remarkably constant, but high, over a six-year period. In 2015, at least 657 companies were liquidated between January and April, while in 2021, at least 674 companies were liquidated in the same period.

The hardship of the past year has affected smaller companies the most. “It is not that more companies suddenly found themselves in trouble. Many of the businesses that have folded in March this year, in all likelihood mostly smaller and medium-sized businesses, have struggled for many months before having to close, if not longer,” says Lings Naidoo, co-founder of BeyondCOVID, a business established to ensure small businesses can find markets and funding.

“The lingering negative impacts on turnover and profitability are likely to see further increases in liquidations,” says Investec economist Kamilla Kaplan. “Particularly as the third wave of infections is likely to see the tightening of certain restrictions. The Covid-19-sensitive sectors, such as hospitality, should remain most affected.” DM168


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