Jabu*, 37, was working as the cleaner and general assistant at a small business in Emalahleni in Mpumalanga, with around 12 employees at the time of our interview. She was one of five people on the payroll who had garnishee orders against their salaries. The week before we met, she was informed she was facing possible retrenchment which was subsequently confirmed. It was her second retrenchment.
Jabu speaks at a whisper: “I was working at a mine, ne, but they retrenched me. After that, my mum passed away, so things were too difficult for me. I must look after myself, the children, and I am a single parent,” she says, “Another lady says to me ‘there’s an administration, they help the people’ so I went to there, to administration…”
At that time Jabu had a Jet account, and personal loan from Nedbank. She calls it “cash”, and I gather that it swiftly disappeared into a hundred uses. She had applied for them while employed, in good faith, but without her job anymore, Jabu admits she stopped paying her accounts. The administrators told her they would consolidate her debt, fit her monthly payments into her meagre budget. They told her to come back and tell them when she found a job, but at first when she found work she didn’t, choosing to use her full paycheque to get back on her feet after a year without an income. Then the system caught up with her. The payroll administrator, Hanelie* – Jabu calls this function “HR” – got a call and a garnishee order was delivered.
“They garnish me R400 every month, but if I go to them and ask for a statement of how much I owe now, they don’t want to give me a statement. I went to HR and told her this, so HR called them but they don’t want to give her a statement. Every month they garnish me, but if I go there for a statement, they tell me that the boss is not here. When I say ‘Who is in charge if she is not here?’, they jiga-jiga.”
After listening to an advice programme on the radio, Jabu went to court and got an order compelling the administrator to issue monthly statements or cancel the EAO. Finally the statements started rolling in.
She fishes out a page from her bag. The paper is limp and worn thin. It is almost perforated into eights from folding and refolding. That is last month’s one. The current statement has faired better. It is stamped with a legal firm’s mark at the bottom. The top bears account numbers, file numbers and a case number. It is all very official looking, and it tells me that Jabu owes just under R12 000 still. Her Jet account is paid off. Her Nedbank loan still looms large with R10 626.25 outstanding. Qalisa Finance needs R1 600 and change from her too.
At R400 a month for five years, she’s been garnished R24 000. There is no sign of this on the account statement. “Distribution” on the statement comes to just R3 175.50 without any indication of what period that covers. Jabu has no idea how long it will take to pay off the outstanding amounts.
“What is Qalisa?” I ask. “I don’t know,” she says. “Because if I ask they say ‘Qalisa is them’, the administrators, but I don’t know this ‘Qalisa’.”
“What are these costs? These admin costs?” I ask. She shakes her head. “I don’t know.”
Jabu’s voice is thick with despair, and catches in her throat. “I think these people are crooks really. They said they are going to help me to pay all my debt, but they can’t [be doing this]. Sometimes Jet calls me or Nedbank, and they ask ‘When are you going to pay?’ but every month they take money. Still they always call. I told them that I am on administration, and they say ‘We don’t know about that’.”
She has no plans to challenge the garnishee. She says she does not know about the Credit Ombud. She talks about her debt with a deep sense of inevitability. “If I am retrenched next week, I will go to these people and say ‘I am no longer working, so can we please decrease my instalment?’ I don’t know. We will see if I am lucky or not. Only God knows.”
“It’s not a good thing, garnishee. It is not a good thing. The problem is that when we work we get accounts, but when we lose our jobs, problems start. You don’t understand. There’s nothing that is permanent in life. God will provide. I told myself, if they retrench me, maybe it happens for a reason.”
Her hands float upwards, coming to rest on the slightest swelling beneath her ribs. Her voice is barely audible over the hum and buzz of the old office fittings: “And now I am stressed… about my baby. My boyfriend passed away. I didn’t know I was pregnant until after…” She was four months along.
* Not her real name