Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. Photo: Leon Nicholas

Rising real disposable income, more jobs for skilled workers and low interest rates have boosted consumer spending and helped households reduce debts to levels last seen in 2006, says Treasury.

The 2011 medium-term budget policy statement (MTBPS), tabled in the National Assembly on Tuesday, says the rate of household debt to disposable income has declined from a peak of 82 percent in the first half of 2008, to 75.9 percent in the second quarter of this year.

“Rising real disposable incomes, expanding employment for higher-skilled workers and low interest rates have sustained consumption spending and also enabled households to pay down debts levels last seen in 2006,” the document says.

The comments by Treasury are in stark contrast to the findings of a survey by debt counselling agency Credit Matters, published in the Sunday Times last week.

According to this, South Africans are trapped in the worst debt crisis ever, with more than 6000 new debt counselling applications a month.

The results of the survey Ä which, according to the newspaper, will be officially released next month Ä are based on interviews with financial industry experts, debt counsellors, media reports and information from Statistics SA and the National Credit Regulator (NCR).

It says debt counselling agencies are swamped with 27,601

applications for debt reviews Ä a last-ditch intervention to allow consumers to restructure debt to avoid blacklisting or repossession.

The applications have increased from 27,573 in September 2008.

According to the report, more than 8.9 million people are trapped in a “debt nightmare”.

It says debt counsellors have estimated that more than half of those in debt could take up to 20 years to get out of it.

Further, that about 75 percent of South Africans' salaries go to service debt.

“We are in the midst of a debt tsunami. The sirens have rung, the wave has come and now it's simply sink or swim,” Roger Brown, the chief executive of Credit Matters told the Sunday Times.

According to the MTBPS, low levels of credit demand, a sluggish housing market and high levels of non-performing loans have contributed to muted growth in credit extension to households. - Sapa