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Beyond the headlines

By Verashni Pillay and Aarti Bhana

Hi there and welcome to The Wrap: simple news updates for busy people, brought to you by explain.co.za 💁🏽‍♀

Unfortunately, most of us are spending this Mother’s Day far from the women who brought us into this world. But we can still acknowledge them, plus the sort of good news that happens so slowly, it doesn’t usually make headlines. Here’s one for you: between the years 2000 and 2017, the maternal mortality ratio, i.e the number of women who died giving birth, dropped by about 38% worldwide! While it may seem dark at times, our world is actually getting better and better across a range of developmental and health indicators. 😇

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EMOJI NEWS INDICATOR

  1. Covid-19 debate: Transparency vs caution 🤐
  2. The economy: highs and lows 📊
  3. Zzzzing with the Zumas 🕵🏽

And in your weekly dose of inspiration: SA ranks joint first in the Open Budget Index. 🗳️
So, let’s dive in:

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🔊 For the audio version of The Wrap, go here

🗞 For text, keep scrolling

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▁ ▂ ▄ ▅ ▆ ▇ █ 1. COVID-19: WHAT THEY’RE NOT TELLING US 🤐

Latest numbers: 10 May 2020

🔸 324 079 tests conducted
🔸 9 420 confirmed positive
🔸 3 983 recoveries
🔸 186 deaths

a. Transparency vs caution

There has been a lot of chatter in the press – some accurate, and some not – about the Covid-19 projections model that government is using to base their response plan on. Now, the Presidency has acknowledged that it has opted to keep these models out of the public domain in order to:

▪️ Avoid panic, and
▪️ Manage stigma towards those who have the virus

Presidential spokesperson Khusela Diko also made the point that they don’t want the models to be seen by the public as “gospel truth”. This is important: a lay person may not understand that ALL models are just educated guess work – not prophecy. ☝🏽

This, of course, has been met with criticism by those opposed to the lockdown – they form an influential and increasingly vocal group, mostly from the pro-business front. This includes the DA opposition party, several mainstream news titles like Financial Mail, and groups like the Brenthurst Foundation, which is backed by the wealthy Oppenheimer family. However, it is not clear how representative they are of South Africans at large.

The early models, produced by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) and the South African Centre for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis, forecasted that South Africa would see between 87 900 and 351 000 deaths if government failed to act. These early models are now being criticised, but you know what they say about hindsight… Plus, the lockdown may actually have prevented this worst-case scenario.

Meanwhile, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research stated that as information and projections are fluid, they don’t want a situation where they have to put out new information by the minute.

NICD has been working on new projection models, but according to the report, is not ready to release its findings to the public. Meanwhile, government says it is working on ways to improve communication with the nation.

What are your thoughts? How do we balance managing the real risk of panic with a commitment to transparency?

b. Behind the scenes of the cigarette ban

There’s been a WHOLE lot of smoke around the on-again, off-again cigarette ban. 🚭

Why exactly did Ramaphosa first say smokes would be sold again, only for a government U-turn a few days later?

There was A LOT of poor analysis and conspiracy theories on social and mainstream media, such as those saying Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (NDZ) had “emasculated” Ramaphosa by overturning the ban. Two eNCA anchors even got pulled off air for saying so (which is a little concerning for freedom of expression). 👀

But what actually went on behind the scenes wasn’t nearly as dramatic as that.

President Cyril Ramaphosa initially announced that cigarette sales would be allowed under Level 4 regulations, but the Sunday Times reported that after serious discussions with his National Command Council the following day, he was ‘swayed’ by Police Minister Bheki Cele, Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi and Health Minister Zweli Mkhize to overturn the decision. Finance Minister Tito Mboweni was against the ban, and wanted cigarette sales to continue but, as he said, he lost the argument. A case of don’t shoot the messenger? 😶 After these discussions, it was the job of the Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister NDZ to voice it to the public – and so she faced the backlash. Now Ramaphosa has come to NDZ’s defense, saying the decision to ban cigarette sales was a collective one.

Meanwhile, Ramaphosa may have worked his famous negotiation skills on cigarette giant
British American Tobacco (BAT). After spitting fire about the cigarette ban and issuing an ultimatum where they threatened to drag government to court, they’ve changed course. This week, BAT announced they would no longer challenge the ban in court. Why the sudden change of heart? In a word: “discussions”. BAT said it held discussions with the government “on the formulation and application of the regulations”, and they would rather pursue further discussions with government on the matter.

Those must have been some powerful discussions! 🧐

▁ ▂ ▄ ▅ ▆ ▇ █ 2. ECONOMY: THE HIGHS AND LOWS 📊

a. Tito gets his way

The ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) has given government the green light to seek loans from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Previously, the ANC stood firm with the South African Communist Party and COSATU (the stepchildren in the Tripartite Alliance) position that loans like this were a no-no, and threaten South Africa’s sovereignty.

But effectively the ANC’s massive board of directors – the NEC – said it’s okay for the state to access up to $50 million from the World Bank, and $4.2 billion from the IMF.

In typical ANC fashion… This means the ruling party is talking left, but walking right. 🚶🏽

It’s an acceptance that South Africa is cash-strapped, and needs to look at new avenues to meet the challenges the country is facing.

Development economists will tell you there’s no such thing as a free lunch when it comes to these two global financial institutions, so we’ll need to be super vigilant about how these loans come into effect.

The World Bank expects this money to be used for Covid-19 expenditure ONLY, and it must be repaid in 35 years.

The IMF wants the South African Reserve Bank to manage the flow of their loan into the economy, and expects repayments to be concluded within five years.

But for now… Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s reform agenda looks to be slowly gathering momentum.

Psst! Read our hilarious satirical take on this story here

b. Unemployment

We already know that Covid-19 has snatched jobs and closed a number of businesses, both big and small, but this week we’ll learn the real numbers when unemployment figures from the first three months of 2020 are released. Economists already forecast the economy contracting significantly, and likely even more depending on how slow the economy reopens.

South Africa’s unemployment rate will most likely increase – a problem the entire world is facing in these unprecedented times. However, our unemployment rate before the crisis was 29.1% – already sky high by global standards (which was 4.9% in 2019).

But, there’s also a tiny silver lining to the Covid-19 jobs crisis. Some industries, like cleaning services, have seen an increase in demand and employment as small businesses begin to open. A segment on Newzroom Afrika showed how one cleaning service is getting more business to disinfect and clean work spaces, as more shops and restaurants slowly reopen.

The explain team will be publishing a special unemployment explainer soon. Keep your eyes peeled.

c. Media analysis

Last week we told you that Associated Media had closed their doors. They were the publishers of several iconic South African magazines, including Cosmopolitan SA and House & Leisure. This week, Caxton’s magazine division and its titles such as Your Family and Woman & Home also had to draw to a close. For all these titles, the pandemic’s effects on the economy – and hence on advertising revenue – spelled the end. But that’s not all: this week, the editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian (M&G) newspaper announced her resignation. This after they put out a plea for subscriptions, saying they would not be able to cover the bills otherwise.

But Covid-19 is merely the straw that broke the camel’s back. Magazines in particular have seen their circulation decimated over the past few years, thanks to the disruption wrought by digital media. As Tim Cohen notes in Business Maverick: “One dramatic illustration of the declining appeal of magazines is Cosmopolitan South Africa which once sold over 250 000 copies a month. It was down to just under 40 000 when it closed.” The M&G newspaper has shrunk to less than 25 000 copies sold weekly, nearly half of what it was just seven years ago.

The good news is that South Africa’s independent media is better prepared for the onslaught than most. The move to donor-funded journalism has been touted globally as one solution to protect journalism, and SA has led with incredible examples. These include investigative unit amaBhungane, community-minded publications like New Frame and GroundUp, and a bevy of excellent health publications like Bhekisisa, Spotlight and Health-e News, plus niche services like Africa Check. The online newspaper Daily Maverick is partially donor-funded too.

d. Comair files for voluntary business rescue

Comair, which owns Kulula.com and operates British Airways in South Africa, is the third South African airline to face operational woes. The JSE-listed company filed for voluntary business rescue this week. This follows SAA and SA Express, which was also placed under liquidation last week.

But unlike those two, Comair was not in particularly bad standing before Covid-19. It’s been profitable for the past 74 years, but is now heading for its first annual loss. The company’s ex-CEO disagreed with the decision to go into business rescue, but the board said once restrictions are lifted, it will take to the air once again.

▁ ▂ ▄ ▅ ▆ ▇ █ 3. POLI_TRICKS 🕵🏽

a. Zzzzing with the Zumas

Does South Africa need to hear from Jacob and Duduzane Zuma? The former president and his controversial son, both accused of a slew of corrupt activities, took it upon themselves to “tell their side of the story” in a Zoom session called, wait for it: #ZoomingWithTheZumas. No surprises when it turned into a rambling conspiracy theory and victimhood session. Lots of talk about how Duduzane would do a better job at managing the pandemic response, but very little talk on those missing state capture billions. 😏

They may have trended on Twitter, but the elder Zuma still has his day in court waiting for him after the lockdown. In a terse ruling on Friday, the ConCourt crushed French arms company Thales’ attempts to have corruption charges dropped. They are accused of bribing Zuma in connection with procurement related to the infamous 1999 Arms Deal. This clears the way for Zuma’s trial on the matter to go ahead, lockdown permitting. It’s pencilled in for 23 June 2020.

As City Press put it in today’s editorial: “In our free society, he cannot be silenced. It would be wrong to even try. The country must just stay the course, and let the truth and the law overwhelm his distortions of the truth and his dangerous narrative.”

b. Armed forces called to honour the constitution

South Africa’s most iconic Finance Minister, Trevor Manuel, wrote an extraordinary op-ed in this week’s City Press, calling on government leaders in his own ruling party to exercise firmer control over the armed forces amid reports of civilian abuse. Instead of closing ranks, Manuel called out the SANDF for misunderstanding their mandate and constitutional oversight. It’s interesting: Manuel, who was first appointed by Nelson Mandela, has openly criticised the ANC during the ruinous Zuma tenure, but it’s encouraging that he still feels free to call out the more popular Ramaphosa administration instead of toeing the party line.

INSPIRATION 💫

All our inspirational news today is drawn from this week’s M&G, which had some delightful bits and bobs:

🔹 It’s tempting to be pessimistic about our country, but South Africa has some world class institutions. Our financial regulatory system spared South Africans the worst of the 2008 global economic crash. And on the public side, South Africa’s Ministry of Finance has positioned itself as a global leader when it comes to budget transparency. This means: making as much of government’s budgets as possible, as public as possible. Treasury has even partnered with data organisations to create tools like Municipal Money, where anyone can get an easy, visual layman’s understanding of their municipality’s finances for the past few years.

Now, South Africa has ranked joint first with New Zealand in the 2019 Open Budget Index. Our country took the top ranking against 117 others – a result it first achieved in 2017. So when you hear concerns about government’s current commitment to transparency, remember it’s not true for everything.

🔹 Cape Town microbreweries could close their kitchens and twiddle their thumbs waiting for the alcohol ban to end. Instead, several have turned to making soup and porridge to help feed the poor. They call themselves the Souper Heroes, and it’s one of the sweetest things we’ve read all week!

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🔸 Look out for South Africa’s first quarter unemployment figures this week, plus plans to save the 2020 academic year. In addition, the finalisation of the appointment of board members and strategic and annual performance plans of some government departments are on parliament’s agenda this week.

That’s it from us at The Wrap, a product of https://www.explain.co.za/ – simple news summaries for busy people. 💁🏾‍♀

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Till next time, goodbye from Verashni, Nickolaus and Aarti ✌🏽