The COVID Demons of South Africa

South Africa today is perceived as “Hell” by many, be it due to the ongoing COVID restrictions,the ailing economy, increasing unemployment or simply because of government corruption or load shedding. But hell does not exist on its own, it requires a variety of Demons to maintain the general perception and high levels of pain.

COVID Demon SA

While we have identified the self-appointed COVID GODS, it is time to visit the other side of the coin of misery and identify the COVID Demons that roam South Africa and I apologise for the length of this summary, but man, have those Demons been busy!!

 

THE BANKS

Without any true surprise, it is once again the South African Banks that act in a manner, which is nothing short of demonic and oblivious to the special circumstances during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Negative leader of the pack is once again First National Bank (FNB) who failed to lower requirements or to offer specific relief under COVID-19 for those who ran into cashflow trouble. The current CEO’s policy of “pay more for less service” has fully encroached on the credit and loan department as payment holidays or restructuring of loans and bonds as well as excess facilities for bonds are either not being dealt with at all or with such delay that COVID will be long over before any relief is in place for their customers.

FNB has recorded the highest number of complaints in the sector, according to the annual report from the Banking Services Ombudsman, and is followed by Absa, Standard Bank, Nedbank and Mercantile Bank, whose quota of granted SME Loans backed by the Reserve Bank is at the lowest end of the scale due to bureaucratic credit departments unable to listen or to understand the President’s address to the banks to lower the requirements and offer “swift and uncomplicated relief through loans to SME”.  Out of the total R 200bn facility reserved for the SME loans only R 7bn were approved and paid out to 1 200 approved applicants by mid-May, while 4 800 applications got rejected. By 10 August that had only increased to R 13bn distributed among that 23% of all 40 000 applications received, mostly because of incorrectly narrow lending conditions applied by the Demons’ Banks.

Self-righteously, the “leading” banks continue to drag the application process over months, defying the very essence of the loans by adhering to their “rather non-lending” practices of the past and – “COVID Loan” specifically – even disallowing the applicants’ variable monthly expenses based on agreements that cannot be terminated, which is your internet, phones, cellular, utilities etc. None of the Demons’ Banks understands that time is key for businesses to survive and meet their obligations and continue to processes applications in the spirit of the late 90s although they lend for the prime lending rate (no loss, no discount) and are secured by the Reserve Bank (no risk).

ESKOM

During the first COVID restriction stages and in the early days of Lockdown the usage of electricity was at its lowest and that would have been the perfect opportunity for maintenance and repairs of the various power stations in imminent trouble. But NO! The executive self-enrichment management slept right through it, more concerned with bonus payments and electricity fee hikes than with the essential mandate they carry: to generate, distribute and sell electricity. Virtually nothing was done, most managers treating the “Office from Home” as a carte blanche for additional paid holidays.

But once the businesses returned and the South African economy worked up first steam, the most dreaded word started to echo through the corporate corridors: “Loadshedding is Back”. ESKOM had even the audacity to blame the cold weather even though winter 2020 is one of the warmest winters in decades! The reason for not attending to any of those maintenance and repair matters lies in the overall supervisor, the department of Energy, which is under Dr. Gwede “Evil” Mantashe, who only cares for a smooth and rapid lining of his and his family’s and friends’ pockets by selling good coal overseas and buying cheap coal to fire the local plants….until they break!

How long do we have to continue to watch those Demons roaming the executive offices of ESKOM? What happened to the War Room? What happened to Pravin Gordhan? Is there anyone left holding the power-scoundrels and Dr. Evil himself accountable?

CITY OF TSHWANE

The households are battling as the vast majority has not received any aid or funding that was promised. Hence budgets are tighter than usual, employment lurks in the corners of every second household and now comes the City of Tshwane, a living example of how to tell their rates and taxpayers “to take a hike and suck an egg”. Try to approach them for a payment holiday or deferred rates or utility payments, they will actually laugh at you. Not only that, but their “systems” are usually conveniently “down” when you need something from them, but their unidentified inspectors ruling of the disconnections or delayed reconnections roam the streets of Tshwane clearly expressing: “Look who is the real Sheriff in Town”. Lawyer letters remain unanswered, accountability shifted across departments and finally dumped in front of the doorsteps of the province. And talking about “dumping”, the waste removal department is on strike since …. As it is more important to fight for their pay increases while those who lost their monthly paycheck are now drowning in waste as well.

Well played, Tshwane, local elections are coming up and guess who will start packing?

UIF

Latest statistics how many applications for the UIF Funding under the Temporary Employer relief Scheme (“TERS”) received this support. TERS started running in April 2020 to assist employers with paying salaries during lockdown but the processing was flawed, supported by an inadequate IT setup and marred by incompetence, insider corruption and blatant ignorance for the necessity of these funds to reach their receivers. A survey conducted by NEASA since April revealed in its update on 3 September that 10% of employers still haven’t received their April UIF/TERS monies and of the 90% of employers who received payment, only 71% were paid in full. The despicable ratio was 17%/71% for May, 28%/75% for June and 98%/50% for July.

In a sad addition, the Fund paid out over R 200k to 53 applicants who were under the legal working age of 15 years. Individuals that Home Affairs said were deceased received over R 400k. Almost R 170k was paid to individuals who are currently in prison, according to the Department of Correctional Services. Over R 30m were paid to people with invalid identity numbers. But that’s not all! The UIF paid R 685k to foreigners whose employers hadn’t paid contributions within the last 12 months; it didn’t check whether they had valid work permits or were refugees. Applicants who had received benefits from other state institutions received over R 140k. Finally, the UIF overpaid on 1 183 claims to the tune of R 84m and underpaid on 1 700 applications by R 250m. There were also transactions on the system that had been paid but had no corresponding documentation, amounting to over R 1.3bn (sic!) for over 230 000 applicants.

This was now picked up by the Auditor General coming to realise that a lack of financial control has led to widespread failures in TERS payments and immediately suspended the Demons responsible: UIF Commissioner Teboho Maruping, along with the UIF’s chief financial officer, chief operating officer and head of supply chain management. This makes now room for additional forensic audits to be conducted by the State’s Anti-Corruption Task Force, the Special Investigation Unit “SIU”, but helps nothing for those employers still waiting as at the same time payments were suspended as well.

SARS

The Receiver of Revenue (“SARS”) is there to receive revenue, which seems a bit doubtful reflecting on the loss of revenue through the ill-advised bans on smoking and alcohol, which had been concocted by the COVID GODS under the false pretence of saving lives (see previous articles by author). But during lockdown where salaries became scarce, companies were unable to produce income and each household was put to the unpleasant cash-flow test one could expect that leniency with regard to tax collection would complement an emphatic approach towards those in temporary needs. Well the Demons at SARS thought otherwise.

SARS was instead embarking on a relentless campaign to chase down each and every tax penny unaccounted for, issued more penalties between April and August than in the whole preceding fiscal year and was only granting relief in form of deferred tax payments, mostly for those companies with a gross income above R 100m.

On top of it, it’s formerly approachability established under Trevor Manuel also disappeared by discontinuing to entertain personal appointments and instead of offering voice or video calls to be pre-scheduled via one (sic!) eBooking Portal and one (sic!) toll-free number (0800 11 7277), which went down and offline less than an hour after the notice was published on the SARS WebSite.

One must commend Germany, where SARS reduced the VAT from 19% to 16% until the end of the year to assist with Corona-based cash flow issues for individuals and businesses alike. The UK and many other European countries deferred tax liabilities into the next year, sped up tax refunds, reversed penalties and/or assist with individual tax relief schemes to alleviate the negative impact of COVID-19 on businesses and individuals alike. But this got all un-noted by the Demons of SARS South Africa, where the new Motto now rules: “Kick the Taxpayer as long as he is still down!”

TELKOM & CELLULAR NETWORKS

Contrary to public perception – and just because service delivery levels are pathetically low – TELKOM is not a wholly State Owned Company (“SOC”) and is only with 39% in the state’s hands. However, it might be as well as the Demons running Telkom during the COVID-19 Pandemic seem to be well trained in ignorance and relentlessness and try to compete with the Cellular Networks for “Who offers the least during COVID-19?”.

Endless numbers of suspension notices and disconnections determine the days at the communication giants. In a time where travel and social visits are banned, where shopping shifts into cyberspace and the need for information is in its peak, that is the time for the IT Demons to cash in and milk the last drop of cash to add to their Billion Rand Profits. No ease or deferral of payment conditions, no subsidised access to streaming services or social media; at least not more than was usually available anyway.

But in exchange for the payments made in these troubled times, during load shedding, you might as well be suspended as the Demons do not spend their ill-gotten gains on power back-ups for their towers. No, they rather have you stranded without reception….gives them the peace and quiet needed to follow up on and count recent revenue streams.

CCMA

The Demons of the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (“CCMA”) are of a very special fabric and are easily identified by their posh title as “commissioner”. They are faced with an unrivalled influx of applications from employees (28 000 in April and May alone), who were retrenched for operational reasons under the COVID-19 Lockdown as numerous businesses were prevented from trading and had to close doors.

The very foundation of the employment relationship is about the rendering of services by an employee, and payment in return for those services by an employer. Generally speaking, the current COVID-19 crisis has caused employees to stop rendering services to their employers. Therefore, the question is whether those affected employers are obliged to pay those employees who are no longer rendering services to them. The answer is simply that the employment relationship becomes suspended due to vis major. Simply put, there is an intervening impossibility of performance which leaves both the employer and employee unable to meet their obligations.

If the affected employee now approached the CCMA, the Commissioner in charge is supposed to find a ground for settlement but all they do these days is to award the very same, standard award of full severance as if there was no Pandemic. But if one thinks that is always positive for the employee, think again: how good are a dozen of awards for full severance package against an employer who simply cannot afford the full staff anymore? The business will close, the award certificate’s value is reduced to the level of toilet paper. If arbitration would have been conducted by Humans, that could have been avoided.

I could go on and on and name and shame dozens of other Demons, some operating openly, some in disguise, whether it is the CEO of the EDCON Group who after decades of record revenue dares to approach the government for help only 6 weeks into the Lockdown (pathetic!) or all the organised chancers, who see in the Lockdown not a necessity that tests the very fabric of society, but rather an opportunity to steal, embezzle, loot or destroy property, to go on strike and to put those in need of Protective Equipment and medical instruments or test kits at risk by pocketing what is not theirs.

The country is at the mercy of these Demons, who walk amongst us, and it is up to each and every individual and business to fight them by withholding contracts, mandates, re-elections or other forms of assistance needed to get them going on in the streets and halls of today’s’ Hell once known as South Africa.

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