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18 March ’21 Wrap: The dangerous student fees trade-off

 

It’s been almost a year since South Africa went into a nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of the “novel coronavirus”, as it was referred to then. Since then we’ve seen a first and second wave come and go. In this edition we bring you the latest Covid news, because we know that it’s taken a bit of a backseat, with things like the Grammys and Duduzane Zuma’s presidential ambitions stealing headlines (we have that too, keep reading). We also have THE guide you need to understand the ongoing student protests. So let’s dive into your weekly news update, brought to you by Verashni Pillay and the explain.co.za team. 🙋🏽‍♀️

Format

🗞 For text, keep scrolling or check out our PDF (which is back, yay!) attached.

🔊 For the audio version of The Wrap, go here:

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▁ ▂ ▄ ▅ ▆ ▇ █ 1. OUR TAKE: WHERE IN THE WORLD ARE WE WITH COVID?

Latest numbers: 

SA is currently doing really well, but scientists don’t actually know why. As The Wall Street Journal points out: “Since mid-January, confirmed Covid-19 infections in South Africa have fallen from a record of nearly 22,000 a day to around 1,000, without a large-scale vaccination campaign or stringent lockdown”. Plus, they say, any scientist who claims they know why, is a liar. Tell that to your opinionated family member at the next (socially-distanced) braai. 😉 There are of course some rumblings about herd immunity but nothing is certain. South Africa’s recovery rate is also pretty impressive, at 95%.

Vaccines: 

We’re one month into the vaccine rollout programme and so far 168 413 health workers have received their first jab of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. But authorities say we’re behind. One vaccination calculator predicts that it will take nearly 18 years to achieve herd immunity if the vaccination programme moves at its current pace. Yikes. But things are expected to pick up with the arrival of more vaccines, and the process getting faster. The plan is to finish phase 1 at the end of April with at least 1 million health workers inoculated. And if you’re wondering when you’ll get your shot according to the current strategy, you can find out using this vaccination calculator developed by South African software company Omni. 

501Y.V2

Speaking of which, 501Y.V2, the version of the variant discovered in South Africa, can now be found in at least 48 other countries, Bloomberg reports. But the good news for South Africa is that the mutation offers us an advantage in developing a very effective vaccine. That’s according to Alex Sigal, a faculty member of the African Health Research Institute who said that antibodies from the reaction to the variant can be used to develop a vaccine that can provide protection against other variants too, according to Bloomberg. He said: “It might leave the virus with not much room to go. This to us was incredible.” 

Third wave

Fear of the third wave hitting South Africa is growing, especially as the winter months approach and people spend more time indoors. Plus Easter festivities are coming up, so we may hear of super-spreader events. And that means one thing: mask up, sanitise and stay safe. 😷

▁ ▂ ▄ ▅ ▆ ▇ █ 2. THE BIG STORY: THE REAL ISSUES BEHIND THE STUDENT PROTESTS 

There are many factors at play in the ongoing student protests, so we’re going to try to summarise the most important ones for you. 

What’s happening: Protests erupted at Wits University last week, then spread to other public universities after historically indebted students weren’t allowed to register. They owe nearly R10bn to the country’s 26 public universities. These universities cannot simply “write off” the debt. They’d go bankrupt. Student leaders threatened a nationwide shutdown, but it’s not clear if it happened. TUT, for one, noted its solidarity but opted out of the protests to allow its students to focus on their exams.  

The root problem: In a nutshell: fall-out from Covid, plus poor financial planning and the inability to make tough decisions. As more parents lost their jobs thanks to Covid, more school-leaving children qualified for the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (Nsfas). At the same time the body was given below-inflation increases in the most recent government budget, on top of previous budget cuts. It was a perfect storm. 😥

Some background: Fierce student protests first broke out in 2015 and only sort of died away after then President Jacob Zuma delivered a poisoned chalice to his successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, by promising free education in 2017. But even before the pandemic, the country’s national budget wasn’t properly prioritised to make this happen – and afterwards, well, our national budget was completely reworked to cope with this once-in-a-generation crisis: cabinet approved reductions of over R24-billion to higher education, including cutting Nsfas funding for loans and bursaries by over R6-billion. Given these cuts, it’s surprising that the guys in government themselves are surprised by the current outcry, and are only NOW scrambling for a solution. 

Can we even afford free education? Clearly not – for everyone at least. But we CAN make it available, as promised, for academically deserving students who just can’t afford it. After all, youth unemployment among graduates is dramatically lower than among their non-degree-holding peers. Only 1,8% of unemployed people were

graduates, according to the latest Labour Force Survey. 🎓

We’d do this by diverting it away from hopeless SOEs like SAA: government’s latest bailout to our national airline is about equal to that R10bn owed by students. Instead, authorities are now scrambling to plug Nsfas’s more than R6bn hole by taking money away from equally deserving sectors – but those that will make less noise. To quote higher education minister Blade Nzimande, we’re stealing from Peter to pay Paul. In this case, R3.3bn of the R6.3bn being diverted to Nsfas would be taken from the National Skills Fund, an agency set up mainly to support and upskill youth who are not employed.

If we don’t make those hard choices, we’ll see these protests time and again. It’s not fair to the students. 

▁ ▂ ▄ ▅ ▆ ▇ █ 3. BRIEFS

Zulu nation mourns its King 

The Zulu monarchy has lost a leader with the death of King Goodwill Zwelethini, who was, with five decades on the throne, the longest serving monarch of AmaZulu. Reflections on his legacy were split; some commentators decried his role in the violence that tore apart KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) ahead of our democratic transition in 1994. 🇿🇦 Then there’s the Ingonyama Trust he presided over as sole trustee. It was set up on the eve of the 1994 elections to help secure the King and the IFP’s political participation – the party had threatened to boycott the process. The Trust administers nearly a third of KZN’s land and is accused of being unconstitutional and treating millions of rural people, particularly women, unfairly. Two government panels have recommended it be dissolved. Nonetheless, many mourned at his funeral this week. It was a symbolic day: the rain poured over KZN, as it did on the day he was crowned. As per tradition the location of his remains will remain unknown by the public. It is not yet clear who his successor will be. 

Soz, Duduzane: Twitter likes don’t count at the polls

Duduzane Zuma has started his official campaign as future president. In a series of tweets last week, the Gupta favourite alluded to his political ambitions for the 2024 presidency; he’s hoping to challenge Cyril Ramaphosa for the ANC’s top spot. So, who is going to break the news to Duduzane that the ANC is not a monarchy? 🙄

Duduzane has no noteworthy political experience, other than being the son of former president Jacob Zuma. 

Duduzane has built a brand with his fans as a bit of a heartthrob. But he should note: thousands of Twitter likes don’t magically turn into votes. Just ask Julius Malema, a far more popular youth figure and experienced politician who still captured only 6.35% of the vote with his party’s first election. 

No wonder former ANC minister Derek Hanekom seemed highly unimpressed, referring to Duduzane as delusional. 

It’s always great to dream, Dudu, but some thoughts are best kept to yourself. 😉

SA’s economy: The good news

In case you missed it, the economy’s 2020 report card came out last week. That’s the long-awaited GDP figures, which would tell us just how much the economy suffered thanks to the horror show that was 2020. (Thanks Covid!) You’ve probably heard by now that GDP contracted by 7%, which is way better than the double digit shrinking everyone feared thanks to a strong rebound at the end of the year. 😬 It’s still tough, but you know that already. So instead, here are three positive things about South Africa’s economy of late, courtesy of chief economist at Stanlib, Kevin Lings.

  • Interest rates are pretty low thanks to the Reserve Bank’s “sensible” move to reduce them, especially in the context of world and local economics. Since March 2020, SARB has cut the repurchase rate to an all-time low of 3.5%. This in effect means that the interest rate on your credit is less and the move also boosts domestic demand and spending. Read our explainer here.  
  • Tax revenue collection increased during 2020. Lings said this was a result of a strong rebound in corporate income tax from the mining sector, more job losses in low-income earning brackets (who contribute little to the economy) and because Treasury’s predictions were conservative. All this means is that the government has more money to channel into important things like vaccines and education.
  • An increase in foreign investment – in November and December, foreigners bought SA government bonds for the first time since June, Lings said. This translates to a sustainable stream of money into the economy. 

Women win big at the Grammys

The 63rd Annual Grammy Awards Ceremony on Sunday was a muted affair given Covid. But it made history, firstly for us South Africans: our favourite comedian and TV personality Trevor Noah took centre stage to host the prestigious event. Noah was his usual charming self, sporting a black tux and ever-growing afro, but played it safe as far as his jokes were concerned. And secondly? The 2021 Grammys belonged to women! 💃

First up: Beyoncé made history as the first woman to receive 28 Grammy Awards in her lifetime. This year’s award was presented in honour of her single Black Parade, a celebration of black power and resilience, released on Junteenth (the day commemorating the end of slavery in the US) last year. Taylor Swift made history as the first female artist to win album of the year three times in a row, this time with a stripped down, rather indie album made during lockdown, Folklore. Other winners include H.E.R.’s I Can’t Breathe, a tribute to the Black Lives Matter movement and the death of George Floyd, for Song of the Year. But fans of Doja Cat, an artist of SA descent, are upset because she didn’t scoop any awards. Blue Ivy Carter, Beyoncé’s 9-year-old daughter, also picked up her first ever Grammy award for her role in the song Brown Skin Girl. Fix your crown ladies, it’s time to shine. 💫

Pick n Pay giant’s tribute to SA  

Raymond Ackerman, the iconic South African businessman who took over the Pick n Pay chain and made it what it is today, turned 90 last week. Ackerman’s real business journey kicked off after he was fired from his position as MD of Checkers, as BusinessLive reports. It was in the 1960s and, with South Africa’s political climate at the time, Ackerman considered emigrating and starting a business of his own somewhere else. But Ackerman, then a father of three, decided to stay. Years later, he has no regrets. Neither do we! In a heartwarming open letter, Ackerman commented on the resilience of South Africans and how we as a nation have been handling the pandemic. “Yet we are still standing, and the way in which people have got on with life in the most trying circumstances and cared for one another along the way is a source of great hope for the future.” He added that we must not lose hope and is positive that in the next 60 years, South African businesses will be booming. If there was a tip we could share from the 90 year-old, it’s: “In short, doing good is good business. If we rebuild our economy on this basis, our future will be secure.” 🙌🏾

Unilever drops “normal” from product packaging 

It was always, um, normal to see the word ‘normal’ on cosmetic products. Think ‘normal to combination skin’ or ‘normal hair’ vs ‘dry and frizzy hair’ etc. But what does ‘normal’ even mean? We’re not even sure after typing the word so many times. 😂 That’s why Unilever, the owner of brands like Dove, TRESemmé hair products and Glow and Lovely in India (rebranded from Fair and Lovely for similar reasons) is dropping the word ‘normal’ from its more than 100 brands. It says this is to ensure there’s a more “inclusive definition of beauty”,  especially after it faced backlash for some of its adverts. Unilever announced that it will also stop photoshopping the body shape, size, proportion and skin tones of models featured in its own advertisements, Al Jazeera reports. This is all quite huge, considering that brands have resisted this kind of inclusivity for years, instead favouring marketing campaigns aimed at creating body insecurity to flog their products. 

Finn-ishing feta 

If you’re a cheese lover, you’re going to love this one! Take one huge block of feta cheese, some cherry tomatoes, garlic, salt and spices, bake it in the oven then smash it up into a sauce. Throw it over some pasta, garnish with basil leaves and enjoy. Make sure to record the entire process (or, you know, it never happened) and upload it to TikTok. Then watch it go viral until there’s no feta cheese on the shelves. No, we’re serious, this really happened in Finland. A TikTok account called @grilledcheesesocial popularised this recipe on the video-sharing platform in January, prompting a national feta cheese shortage in Finland. Should we blame the Finnish for finishing the feta? 😜 

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

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Till next time, goodbye from the team ✌🏽