Debt collectors are not allowed to bother you during SA’s Covid-19 lockdown

News analysis

Bad debt
  • There are still some areas of confusion around exactly what services are essential and should remain operational during South Africa’s national Covid-19 lockdown.
  • As of Thursday, debt collection is no longer one of them. The government definitely does not want debt collectors to operate during the state of disaster.
  • So much so that finance minister Tito Mboweni is specifically barred by new regulations from allowing debt collectors to operate. 
  • For more stories go to the Business Insider South Africa homepage.

A week into South Africa’s Covid-19 lockdown there are still occasional arguments about exactly what is, and what is not, allowed, from cigarette sales to how many passengers minibus taxis may carry.

But as of Thursday there is no doubt about one thing: debt collection services are absolutely, definitely not allowed to operate until lockdown lifts.

In newly gazetted rules, cooperative governance and traditional affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (who is in overall charge of disaster management) laid out how the government plans to use cellphone tracking and determined who may travel to funerals.

See also | The govt can now track cellphone locations back to 5 March: how Covid-19 tracing will work

She also laid out much more precisely than before just what sectors of the financial industry should continue to work, and the one that shouldn’t.

When the lockdown was first decreed, essential financial services were defines as those “necessary to maintain the functioning of the banking and payments environment, including the JSE and similar exchanges, as well as insurance services.”

In an initial update to those rules, “medical scheme administration” was added to the list.

On Thursday the list grew both longer and more explicit, to now include mutual banks, “the savings and investment environment”, and pension fund administration.

There is one rider to the list: it “may not be construed to include debt collection services”.

Debt collection is also specifically mentioned elsewhere in the new regulations. Finance minister Tito Mboweni now has the power to designate more services necessary to keep the rest of the essential financial machinery working, as he sees fit, without going via Dlamini-Zuma’s department.

There’s just one limitation: he may not include debt collection in any such list he creates.

Other countries have partially or entirely suspended debt collection during the Covid-19 crisis, including Switzerland and Greece. But in the United States debt collectors are pushing back, saying their services are more important than ever for the likes of medical service providers.

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