The Covid-19 SMME Debt Relief Fund is regarded as a double-edged sword by its beneficiaries. This was revealed during a Parliamentary oversight meeting by the Portfolio Committee on Small Business Development in March 2021. While beneficiaries lauded the fund for helping with some financial strain brought on by the lockdown, they want the Small Business Development Department and the Small Enterprise Finance Agency (Sefa) to either give repayment breaks or scrap them altogether.
The department mandated the Sefa to administer the R513-million fund. Around 35,865 applications were received from small businesses. But only 14,800 were fully completed, and 1497 approved. The committee invited 12 beneficiaries across various sectors from each province to share their experiences. According to the department, a large number of recipients were women (491 beneficiaries at 32.8%), followed by the youth (311 beneficiaries at 20.8%). KPL Die Casting, a 23-year-old street lighting company, told the committee that without the funding, it would not have survived the lockdown.
“Thanks to the relief fund, business is running smoothly,” the company’s spokesperson said. Lapologa BnB, which operates in the hospitality industry, said that the fund ensured that none of its employees were retrenched. It was also able to expand and open a self-catering branch in Polokwane. Lapologa reported that it had employed 10 people at its Tzaneen branch, and four in Polokwane. It had also given students from Further Education and Training colleges an opportunity to gain experience when their BnBs were fully booked.
Lapologa requested that the Sefa award a three to six-month repayment holiday to beneficiaries. Waterfront Guesthouse, which started 14 years ago in Upington in the Northern Cape, told the committee it had plans to expand, but this was put on ice due to the lockdown. Although thankful for the fund, the guesthouse’s representatives regarded it as a liability because they would have to repay the loan. It has made written requests to have a three-month payment holiday as the tourism sector was the hardest hit. But no response has been received from the Sefa.
White Hills Trading, which falls in the hospitality sector and does baking, events management and catering, said it had secured a crucial lease agreement and paid employees thanks to the money. Libra Joiners and Interiors from Cape Town recommended that government look at abolishing the loan repayments. “SMMEs fall in the same category as unemployed who received R350 but don’t need to pay it back,” the company said. It urged committee members that no matter their political affiliations, they should strongly consider the man on the street whose priority was to put food on the table.
Committee chairperson Violet Siwela appeared to agree with the recipients, saying she was concerned that SMMEs were burdened with repayments. She recommended that the department and the Sefa consider devising suitable repayment strategies.
“It is not the beneficiaries’ duty to develop repayment strategies. Since this is a debt relief fund, it must therefore relieve the beneficiaries,” Siwela said. Small businesses have been earmarked by the government to help boost economic growth and be the largest job creators over the next 10 years.