Rhinos graze in the Pongola Nature Reserve in Jozini, SA. Picture: REUTERS/ROGAN WARD
Rhinos graze in the Pongola Nature Reserve in Jozini, SA. Picture: REUTERS/ROGAN WARD

Last week Federica Aletti, who runs Shikwaru Adventures, finally got the e-mail she’d been waiting for from the "tourism relief fund". For nine years, she and her husband had been running private tours, ranging from cycle tours around Soweto to trips to Victoria Falls. With her ability to speak Spanish and French, the tours had been a hit with foreign tourists.

Then Covid-19 hit, and the government froze everything — including flights and all tourism.

At the time, tourism minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane said the relief fund would be created and funded with R200m, to help small companies survive. "We are committed to seeing the sector being able to pick up the pieces, post-Covid [so] our role will be to respond and support the industry," she said.

But when Aletti opened the e-mail, it read: "We regret to inform you that your application to the tourism relief fund has been declined". The reason given: "fraudulent document".

"This is obviously not true," says Aletti. "We weren’t given any more explanation, and they have simply ignored our e-mails."

It’s a body blow for her business, which consists of four people, including her husband. "We’re not earning anything. We do have a little bit of money but can we survive if this continues? Not at all," she says. She was relying on the relief fund to keep her afloat until tourism resurfaces.

If only this were uncommon. Depressingly, there are many others in the same position who, hanging on by their fingernails, have been let down by incompetent buffoons in the civil service.

Last week, Kubayi-Ngubane warned that between 500,000 and 600,000 jobs would be lost if the industry remained shut till September. "It’s difficult because we want to help everyone, we want to support everyone, but the money that we have is too little," she said.

But she is part of the problem. Her diktat that emergency funding would be handed out depending on a company’s black empowerment status has been widely panned as nonsensical.

As finance minister Tito Mboweni argued: "We need to support all enterprises, black and white, as long as they are able to remain viable". And Tsogo Sun CEO Marcel von Aulock told the FM recently: "I can guarantee you that 95% of the staff working for those tourism companies is black."

Only, race-based funding isn’t even the problem right now; Kubayi-Ngubane’s officials are throttling companies indiscriminately.

As Aletti says: "There are many companies in the same position as us. And it’s not a race thing, since I know black people whose applications are also being declined for no reason."

Abednigo Nzuza, a tourist guide in KwaZulu-Natal, says he faced "huge problems" applying to the fund, as the process was riddled with bugs.

"I wasn’t able to apply in the end, because it was impossible to load the documents they wanted. I gave up," he says. He is battling: "It’s very difficult. I bought an eight-seater vehicle to carry tourists, and while the bank said they’ll give me some time, without work I know there’s no way I’ll be able to pay."

It’s not just Kubayi-Ngubane’s ham-fisted department. As May ends, the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) says on its website: "We have not started accepting TERS [temporary employer/employee relief scheme] applications for May yet."

While the UIF paid some claims for April, it’s far behind the curve. UIF commissioner Teboho Maruping admits that many challenges remain.

But at this point, excuses won’t cut it. This crisis has badly exposed the most inept government departments. SA can ill-afford this bungling.