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“How debt almost ruined my life”

Three South Africans talk frankly about how spiralling debt and associated challenges caused them to hit rock bottom – and how they’re clawing their way out.

14 March 2024 · Fiona Zerbst

“How debt almost ruined my life”

Being heavily indebted can undermine your financial security and even lead to ruin.

Three South Africans share their stories about how debt almost destroyed their lives – and what they’re doing to get back on an even keel. 

Tip: Do you qualify for a debt solution that will free up more cash? Find out about debt consolidation.

“I dreaded calls from unknown numbers”

Debt was an overwhelming obstacle for Busi Mthombela, a 32-year-old human resources administrator.

“After my debit orders came off my monthly salary, I only had enough money [to live on] for a week,” she recalls. “The only way I could survive was to take out loans and max out my credit card.”

Her debt was partly the result of her family’s pressure to support them once she secured a good job after graduating. “I began denying myself necessities such as dental visits, new glasses for work, and decent food,” she admits.

Her creditors frequently called her to insist she settle her debts.

“I dreaded calls from unknown numbers. The situation caused me untold anxiety fear and anxiety,” she recalls.

She entered debt counselling five years ago and her debt counsellor helped her with a repayment plan.

“The most stressful thing was explaining to my family that I couldn’t always provide for their financial needs. They weren’t as understanding as I would have thought,” she says.

Busi paid her final instalment last year. “Getting debt-free was just such a relief,” she says.

“Gambling got me deep into debt”

Former attorney Kim Waters, 52, is a recovering gambling addict and has placed herself on the “blacklist” of all casinos around her hometown.

“When I was in my 20s, I began working at a prestigious law firm. I married young and had two beautiful daughters. My husband and I could afford the best private schools for them, and we went on an overseas holiday every year,” she says.

“However, the bubble burst when I decided to open my own law firm. The pressure of starting a new business was immense. I began buying lottery tickets in the hope I would ‘win big’. It became an obsession,” she says.

Kim then began visiting a local casino with a friend.

“We would leave work and spend hours at the roulette tables,” she recalls. “I lied to my family in order to spend time at the tables during weekends. Soon, my five credit cards were maxed out, as was my overdraft.” 

Kim stole her husband’s credit card and used her company’s funds to gamble.

Her husband paid her debts but divorced her and got custody of the couple’s children. Kim’s law firm also collapsed.

“I lost my home, and family and friends disowned me. I’m now living in a women’s shelter,” she says.

Kim has since joined Gamblers Anonymous.

“I had to start again from the ground up”

Vinesh Govind inherited a thriving panel-beating business from his father.

“People came to our shop from all over KwaZulu-Natal because they admired my father’s work ethic and service,” he says.

“As a result, we had a hugely successful business. I wanted for nothing when I was younger.”

When his father died, Vinesh took over the business – but he was not mature enough to manage it properly. “I felt indestructible when I looked at our balance sheet and began to spend lavishly,” he admits.

Within a decade, Vinesh ran a multimillion-rand business into the ground. “I drove away all my father’s loyal clients – nobody would use us because of our miserable reputation,” he confesses.

Vinesh began drinking heavily and started using cocaine.

“Seven years ago, my friend found me almost dead on the pavement outside my flat,” he recalls. “I went into rehab twice and have been clear for 30 months now.”

The 50-year-old has started a small panel-beating business and is slowly getting new clients.

I will never have the lifestyle I once did, but at least I’m off the street, living in a decent flat, and have a partner who loves me,” he concludes.

Tip: Unpaid debt can compromise your financial stability. Check your credit score to see where you stand.

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