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'This is horrible': businessman describes the pain of laying off 40 staff

14 May 2020 - 06:00 By Nonkululeko Njilo
Founder and CEO of Brima Logistics, Tshepo Mekoa, and some of his staff.
Founder and CEO of Brima Logistics, Tshepo Mekoa, and some of his staff.
Image: Supplied

A business owner whose establishment was crippled by the coronavirus and lockdown told TimesLIVE of the emotional turmoil he has endured after having to lay off workers.

Tshepo Mekoa, founder and CEO of Brima Logistics, which employs more than 100 people, struggled to come to terms with breaking the news — which would leave 40 families struggling.

Before the announcement, his blood pressure went up and he became depressed.

Mekoa, an advocate for entrepreneurship, said it was one of the most difficult decisions he had ever faced. Before the pandemic, the company was growing and was in the process of hiring more people.

“I had to find strength to sit down and explain to the staff what was going on and why we had to lay them off. It was hard. I had to gather myself and sign the retrenchment letters,” he said.

“Our staff members are gone. They have names. They are breadwinners. If you take that 40 and multiply by three, you’ll get a sense of how many people were dependent on these jobs.”

Brima Logistics has six branches across the country and employs 120 people. The company was doing well in the previous financial year, said Mekoa. But the pandemic has meant very limited income. Staff members have had to take hefty salary cuts to keep the company afloat.

“We are now fighting to stay in business. It’s no longer about profit, no longer about growth,” said Mekoa.

Despite uncertainty about the future, Mekoa said his staff had been putting on a brave face.

“They are fighting. They are working twice as hard to service our clients. You would not say these are the people whose salaries were slashed by 50%. They have smiles on their faces. They've told me we’re not going down without a fight. They motivate me,” he said.

Mekoa said the business had to shut at the start of the lockdown and was only allowed to resume operation on level 4, but at 40% capacity.

“We’ve navigated thus far, but it hasn’t been easy,” he said.

During normal operations, drivers would be accompanied, but now they travel alone.

Mekoa has made big personal sacrifices to ensure the business stays afloat.

“I took about a 65% salary cut. I had to dip into my bond and pay the money and transfer to the business to try to help ... This is horrible, because some of our customers who were meant to pay are also affected,” he said.

He's taken many bruising blows in life but is determined not to give up.

“This company can’t fail, failure is not an option.”

He recalled how he had a terrible motorbike accident in 2016.

“I was in ICU for three months, in a coma for a month. I was declared dead, but I fought to come back. I had to learn to walk,” he said.

Last year he had a heart attack and then his health took another knock when the pandemic forced his business to close.

“When this pandemic surfaced, my blood pressure started shooting up and down, my wife had to align me, she said, 'come back, you’re needed the most, think survival',” he said.

Mekoa told those who were laid off not to lose hope.

“We are still in contact. I had to give them a time frame and I said, 'Give us three months, keep your phones on'.”

For those who remain at work, the company is supplying them with personal protective equipment for their health and safety.

Despite the salary cuts, those who are still working still have medical aid and a provident fund.

“These guys, like anybody else might contract coronavirus, hence we decided not to compromise and pay for their medical aid. Should something happen, we want them to get the best care,” he said.

Mekoa attributed his resilient attitude to his wife, understanding entrepreneurship and having supportive colleagues. He hopes to resume full operations in the future.

“Right now we are just keeping our heads above water. We are trying to hold the fort, trying to make sure we deliver and provide services to our customers who are very supportive.

“We are determined that we are not going down without a fight,” he added.