Lockdown | LGBTQ people facing unemployment and financial ruin

An uncertain future: Dumisani Dube, Sphume Ndlovu, Smangaliso Radebe & Tumelo Makgoara

As South Africa continues to battle with ever-increasing confirmed COVID-19 cases, there are growing numbers of LGBTQ people who are deeply uncertain about their financial future. 

This in a country that already has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world; South Africa has more than 20 million unemployed people who are under 35 years of age. This is why so many have started businesses in various industries. It is these brave entrepreneurs who stand to lose their livelihoods, further impacting those who rely on them. 

MambaOnline spoke to a few LGBTQ entrepreneurs and other young people whose income and businesses have been affected by the national lockdown. 

Initially declared for 21 days, the lockdown has been extended without any clear end. It has directly impacted economic activity across the board, with many fearing that once it is lifted, they will have no jobs or enterprises to return to. At the same time, the owners of small businesses find themselves frustrated at the red tape and cumbersome requirements for access to the relief offered by the government. 

Dumisani Dube, 48, from Soweto is the founder of DMD Event Management and Catering and says when the lockdown was declared “it took us by surprise as a business – we were not prepared. And we had so many plans and events lined up.”

Echoing this, Sphume Ndlovu, who runs a start-up furniture, interior design and décor business in KwaZulu-Natal, says: “I was not prepared for this lockdown. My business is still small, and we were looking forward to growth. There were no reserves or savings to carry us through this.” 

The lockdown has been a huge blow to many SMMEs, especially those in industries that require close contact such as the events, hospitality, tourism and retail sectors. The regulations make it a punishable offence for these people-centric businesses to function during this time, forcing them to completely cease operations. Many in those industries find themselves in limbo, unsure what tomorrow holds. This has deferred their plans and dreams for the year – at the very least. 

Smangaliso Radebe, 28, from Soweto works in a hotel in Muldersdrift, Gauteng. “As soon as the lockdown was announced, our management called us in and told us that some of us would go home and might never return to work. The business had already been suffering since the global outbreak of the virus,” he says in a telephone call, the despair in his voice obvious. 

Tumelo Makgoara, 32, is equally stressed. The company he joined in January after his own business struggled for more than two years, is facing dire straits. As a travel agency, the company at first felt the effects slowly as global tourism slowed down but now all travel has ground to a halt. “I didn’t think it would pan out like this, or reach this level. We literally went from 100 to 0 in a matter of weeks and there is no clear idea about what will happen after this,” the Alberton resident says. 

While there are hopes that things will eventually go back to normal, there are no guarantees and, further, there is no date for when this will happen, making it almost impossible for businesses to plan ahead.

“How am I going to survive during this time?”

Government has announced a roll-out of relief funds that are meant to help small businesses to stay afloat during the crisis. “These solutions are great, they are but they don’t take into consideration the reality of many small businesses like mine,” says Ndlovu. “I have enquired and due to the gaps in our paperwork, I can only apply for the unemployment grant of R350.”

Dube also applauds the government for offering some help but reveals that, as a foreign national, he and his business cannot apply and access any of these funds. 

The employees, on the other hand, are on the fence. Makgoara says that while the relief is a good idea, “… the communication around it is not clear. My employer has applied but we are still waiting. We don’t even know at this point if the money will come through. The government could do better with that.” 

Radebe is equally frustrated by the uncertainty: “We have been offered loans that will be set off against that money, should it be paid. If it is not paid, I don’t know.” While many people have some kind of recourse in applying for these relief funds, the freelancers and informal traders are forgotten. 

One such person is photographer Boitumelo Nkopane, from Springs. She expresses angst at the lockdown and the government’s support (or lack thereof). “If I work as a photographer and now cannot work at all, and I am not a registered business, how am I going to survive during this time?” she asks in frustration. 

Nkopane is one of a large number of LGBTQ people in townships whose informal cooking, hair, makeup, event, décor and photography services cannot be offered, devastating their income. These members of our community are now effectively unemployed, with no rightful claim to the UIF temporary relief as they are not registered for it. They also cannot claim for relief loans as their businesses are not registered and they have few options other than claiming a meagre R350 unemployment grant.

Amidst all this, Dube and Ndlovu, who view the lockdown as a temporary setback, remain positive and believe that things will go back to normal soon enough. Radebe and Makgoara, however, are less sunny about the months ahead. 

“All my plans for the year will have to pause. I am already dipping into my savings and have no idea where money will come from on the other side,” says Radebe. Makgoara questions the sustainability of government assistance should the lockdown go on for much longer while Nkopane believes that the government only cares for big business and is not thinking about small players like herself.

The national lockdown has presented a difficult, catch-22 situation for many. The choice between staying at home to avoid contracting and spreading the coronavirus against the real struggle to earn a living is a difficult one. 

The individuals in the article are just a small representation of the diverse but painful realities faced across the country due to the unprecedented effect of the lockdown. As an LGBTQ community that is often fractured and divided, it’s time to pull together. Let us act with kindness and help each other to survive and, in time, to thrive.

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