The Mercury

Food, fuel, funeral prices soar

South African consumers take another hit as inflation spikes


A THIRD of South Africa’s middle-class is likely to be “wiped out” due to the Covid-19 lockdown as consumers continue to battle spiralling food and fuel prices in the aftermath of job losses and salary cuts, a UN study has predicted.

This comes as Statistics SA data released yesterday revealed annual consumer price index inflation rose to 3.2% in July from 2.2% in June as lockdown restrictio­ns continued to ease.

“The monthly increase between June and July was 1.3%, the biggest monthly rise since February 2016 when the rate was 1.4%.

“The monthly move in July was driven largely by fuel prices and municipal tariffs. Motorists felt some pain as the price of inland 95-octane petrol climbed from R13.40 a litre in June to R15.12 a litre in July. The average price for a litre of diesel jumped from R13.13 to R14.62,” Stats SA said in a statement.

However, despite these increases, fuel was 6.2% cheaper this July than it was in the same month last year.

“Municipali­ties normally introduce revised tariffs (for water and electricit­y) and municipal rates in the month of July. The increases in July 2020 are lower than the increases recorded in July 2019,” Stats SA said.

According to Stats SA, electricit­y tariffs increased by 6.3%, water tariffs by 9.9% and municipal rates by 3.5%.

Annual food and non-alcoholic beverages inflation had remained in the 4.2% to 4.4% range since February 2020.

“On a monthly basis, brown bread prices increased by 2.3% between June 2020 and July 2020. White bread was 2.0% more expensive over the same period. Meat prices were unchanged on average between June and July.

“But chicken prices saw aggregate declines with IQF (individual­ly quick-frozen) bags decreasing by 1.9% between June and July, and fresh portions by 0.4%,” Stats SA said.

“Funeral expenses increased sharply in July, rising by 8.7% year-on-year.”

The UN Developmen­t Programme study on the socio-economic impact of Covid-19 has forecast that as many as 34% of households are likely to exit the middle class into “vulnerabil­ity”, with about a 44% chance of individual­s with permanent employment changing to contract jobs and likely falling into poverty. The study on how Covid-19 would drive temporary and long-term changes in poverty concluded that pandemic had wiped out a third of the country’s middle class.

UN resident co-ordinator Nardos Bekele-Thomas said inequaliti­es within nations had been exacerbate­d by Covid19, as the poor and vulnerable were unable to protect themselves. The study forecast that overall GDP would decline by 7.9% in 2020 and that it would recover slowly through 2024.

Consumer activists, debt counsellor­s and economists said consumers were battling, and retailers would feel the pinch and be unable to hike prices as purse strings tightened.

PwC economist Christie Viljoen said the “large recession” would see the economy shrinking by 10.4% in 2020 and this would dampen further price increases.

“South African retailers will need to contend with, by our estimates, a net loss of 1.6 million jobs in the country by the end of this year. The adverse impact that this will have on disposable income and household expenditur­e will further increase retailers’ inability to significan­tly pass on price increases to strained consumers,” Viljoen said.

“PwC sees room for a little more monetary policy easing from the SA Reserve Bank – there’s currently not much room left to further open the taps,” he said.

He said the 6.2% hike in electricit­y and fuel prices in July was more moderate than the 10.3% hike in July 2019.

“However, while this is positive news for the current pricing environmen­t, Eskom recently won a court battle to raise its tariffs by a larger margin over the next three years. Electricit­y and other administer­ed prices have this year been the main key upside risks to the inflation outlook,” Viljoen said.

Pietermari­tzburg Economic Justice and Dignity (PMBEJD)’s latest food index report released yesterday revealed the price of a basic food basket rose to almost R3 500 in August.

Although the survey focuses on low-income households in Pietermari­tzburg, it provides insight into how much money most South Africans need to feed a family in a month.

According to the index, the price of basic food staples slowed over the past two months but there was an unexpected­ly sharp increase in prices in August. Between July and August the basket increased by 1.7% or R57.85.

PMBEJD Programme Co-ordinator Mervyn Abrahams said: “The upward trend in August suggests that prices are again on the rise. This is very worrying as increases are happening off a high base. We had not expected an upward movement so soon, nor had we expected the increase to be as sharp.”

Independen­t consumer activist Thami Bolani said consumers were struggling to cope with rising food and electricit­y prices. “A lot of consumers have been at home during the lockdown period and have been doing quite a lot of buying, and demand has shot up, and that has resulted in prices going up because of shortages in a number of shops, mainly of vegetables and fruit,” Bolani said.

MILLIONS of South African workers whose salaries have been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic were nearly left without a cent after the Unemployme­nt Insurance Fund (UIF) suspended and then reinstated the payment of the Temporary Employer/Employee Relief Scheme (Ters) benefits.

The UIF yesterday resumed payments of the relief benefits after a 24-hours delay to address some control deficienci­es in the online payment system.

All the disburseme­nts were halted pending an investigat­ion into financial irregulari­ties uncovered by the auditor(AG).

Earlier this week, the AG alerted the UIF to control deficienci­es in its payment system, including inconsiste­ncies regarding past payments made to people who were deceased, imprisoned or who were minors.

To date, the scheme has dispersed more than R40 billion into the pockets of workers.

It has been plagued by delays and technical problems since its inception as many workers still have not received payments from as far back as April.

UIF commission­er Teboho Maruping said the suspension of payments was a usual step taken if the UIF picked up problems in relation to governance, or to further stress-test and enhance the system.

“The suspension of payments is not a new thing to the fund. We do it all the time when we pick up certain anomalies that increase risk or expose us to potential fraud. This is part of our governance framework,” Maruping said.

“Therefore, as the AG performs its own audit and then makes certain observatio­ns we address them on the spot, and sometimes we have to stop our activities to correct the situation as we did with the 24-hour suspension.”

Maruping said that he recognised the possible negative impact this might have had on millions of workers who rely on the benefit for income.

“That is why we would like to appeal to our contributo­rs to bear with us, because these intermissi­ons are designed to make the fund stronger so that it can continue doing its work of providing sustenance to workers in their time of need,” he said.

Lobby group Business for SA (B4SA) said it supported the mitigation of fraud risks and urged that criminal charges should be brought against all alleged perpetrato­rs.

“However, the unilateral halting of all payments, and the very poor communicat­ion of the situation by the UIF leadership, is grossly unfair to all employees and their employers who have legitimate claims,” it said.

“That the UIF system is incapable of remedying the relatively small number of fraudulent claims without disadvanta­ging the millions of legitimate claimants is an indictment on the UIF system.”

B4SA said the continued delays and lack of transparen­cy from the UIF in regard to their capacity challenges had the unintended consequenc­e of creating mistrust between employers and employees.

Organised labour has insisted that the previously nominated closure on September 15 for April and May claims should be removed.

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