Covid-19 Roundup | Looted funds and wage disputes

While the auditor general uncovered which Covid-19 funds were misused, artists shut down the N3 in KwaZulu-Natal, calling for the reopening of the entertainment industry.

Suspending minimum wage

The National Employers’ Association of South Africa (Neasa) wants to “suspend” the minimum wage of R20.76 per hour because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Neasa’s chief executive officer, Gerhard Papenfus, claims that forcing employers to pay a minimum wage when workers are prepared to work for less “condemns [workers] to a life of abject poverty”. The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) says Neasa only “wants a labour regime which is totally unregulated, just like it was under apartheid when workers, particularly African workers, had no rights and could be fired and abused at will with no consequences for the white boss”.

Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim says given that Statistics SA has found there is still a very large wage gap between white and black workers, there is no reason to decrease the minimum wage, mainly earned by black workers, to lower than R20.76 per hour, especially as hundreds of thousands of domestic workers, farm workers and workers on the expanded public works programme have even lower minimum wages.

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“Government’s strategy on dealing with Covid-19 must change because it is geared towards enabling a handful of greedy capitalists to profit at the expense of the masses,” says Jim.

He continues that the Covid-19 strategy included allowing employers to retrench workers during the pandemic, allowing banks to continue to charge interest on loans and allowing thousands of workers to lose pay while they were quarantined or put on short time when factories closed during lockdown.  

Abuse of Covid-19 funds 

The first in a series of reports by the auditor general into the R500 billion Covid-19 relief package that the government redirected as a response to the pandemic found that it “landed in a weak control environment”. 

Auditor-general Kimi Makwetu’s office has undertaken a real-time audit of 16 key Covid-19 relief initiatives introduced by the government following a request by President Cyril Ramaphosa. The first report covered R68.9 billion of the R147.4 billion released and managed by the government.

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The audit teams found that the rapid implementation of the initiatives in already compromised control environments created significant risks. They found the processes, criteria, needs and controls were not well considered and mistakes created opportunities for abuse.

“We are concerned about the indicators of high risk of fraud and abuse we observed – not only in the areas that we were able to audit, but also where information for auditing was not forthcoming, which could be a deliberate tactic to frustrate our audit efforts,” Makwetu said in a statement following the release of the report.

“This report can serve as a guide for the agencies that have been tasked by the president to investigate allegations and indicators of abuse of the Covid-19 funds of the main areas of risk they can focus on.” 

March against bank closure 

About 150 members of the Mthwaza Civil Rights movement, based in the small Eastern Cape town of Molteno, marched against First National Bank (FNB) this week. FNB is discriminating against the mainly black residents of the town by closing their Molteno branch, says the movement’s coordinator, Sibusiso Xoxo. The closure would mean Molteno residents would need to pay R120 to travel to the nearest branch in Burgersdorp. This money would have to come from grants and wages that are already overstretched by rising food prices, says Xoxo.

“Clients and the community were not engaged and informed about the decision. The only communication from the bank was a poster at the door of the branch. Many people in Molteno do not have the relevant gadgets, data and know-how to access and use the online platforms,” Xoxo tells New Frame

“The coronavirus regulations and guidelines make it clear that people must reduce travelling from one place to the next. This decision will mostly affect the elderly, those [older than] 60, as they are the ones who use the branch to get their retirement and pension funds. This is a matter of public interest as the … branch signed a contract with the Department of Social Development to facilitate the payments of social grants,” Xoxo adds. 

Artists shut down the N3

The mayor of eThekwini Municipality, Mxolisi Kaunda, has condemned the actions by KwaZulu-Natal artists who recently blocked the N3 highway in protest, calling for the reopening of the entertainment industry under level two of the national lockdown.

The artists and musicians also demanded that they be allowed to perform at 70% capacity during events.

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According to the city’s metro police, the protest, which disrupted the flow of traffic for several hours, led to the arrest of 30 people. Those arrested have reportedly been charged with breaching sections of the Regulation of Gatherings Act and the Road Traffic Management Corporation Act.

In a statement, Kaunda said, “We understand that various sectors and industries have been hard hit economically by the Covid-19 global pandemic but the unruly actions and acts of economic sabotage will not be tolerated, and those who go against the law will be brought to book. As government, we are aware that the economy is severely strained.” 

Protective equipment ‘concerns’ 

In his reply to questions at the National Assembly on 2 September 2020, Department of Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said there were concerns relating to the availability of adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical personnel across the country. Opposition leaders questioned Mkhize about an array of issues, including frontline workers having no or inadequate protective equipment while working. In some instances, there were delays in PPE delivery or staff had fees for protective equipment deducted from their pay. Mkhize claimed to be unaware of this, asking for further details. 

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Most of the discontent came from anger over the auditor general’s report published earlier on the same day. The report confirmed that there were a number of issues relating to the procurement of PPE for Covid-19. 

Mkhize’s response was that problems should be reported and that inspections are carried out where there are inadequacies on a case-by-case basis. 

“Each time this matter gets raised, we need to go and investigate,” he said. 

So far, 240 medical staff have lost their lives to Covid-19, Mkhize said, as opposition parties questioned if this was as a result of inadequate protective equipment, while those with political connections looted the pandemic funds. 

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