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Are South African universities under assault?

- Adam Habib

Declining subsidies and fees coupled with increasing demands for higher remuneration could jeopardise the future sustainability of universities in South Africa.

Maybe assault is too harsh a word, as it suggests premeditated, malevolent intent and I do not believe that this is the case. But the recent actions of a variety of stakeholders, both internal and external, effectively amount to an assault on the very soul of universities, which could compromise their future sustainability. This would be tragic as universities, and in particular the research-intensive universities in South Africa, represent one of the last bastions of quality higher education in Africa, essential for the creation of new knowledge and for producing high level skills to ensure the inclusive development of the continent.

There are three key challenges facing the high education sector – the competing demands for limited resources in an environment where policy directives are not adequately substantiated and funded; an ongoing political destabilization of universities where these institutions are often used as a political football by politicians and political parties; and increasing remuneration and other demands from internal role players who are impervious to the realities of managing complex higher education institutions in the current global economy. I have already publicly reflected on the former two challenges on multiple occasions. Allow me to elaborate on the third using a recent example.

In January 2018, industrial action, largely co-ordinated through national unions, erupted at some universities, including Wits University. The strikes were not as disruptive as recent student protests, although at Wits University, some individuals were threatened and assaulted, bathrooms were flooded, rubbish bins were overturned, sewerage systems were blocked and in one case, waste was released. While union leaders may view these actions as ‘peaceful’ and mere administrative inconvenience, such events fracture the university community and inhibit thoughtful deliberation and the free exchange of ideas, essential pillars of any university.

More worryingly, these strikes and the demands by local union leaders reflected the inability of some internal stakeholders to recognise that there are competing demands on the university’s limited resources and that measured, balanced negotiation is necessary to ensure that the university remains financially sustainable in the long-term.

After six months of negotiation, and despite an offer of a 6.8% salary increase (and 8% for staff on the lower grades) – remuneration offers that were significantly above inflation – all of the unions declared a stalemate and two of them embarked on industrial action in late January 2018. Their demand was for substantively higher salary increases even though they were perhaps some of the best paid staff in the university sector.

Moreover, their demand was made in a context where there were significant uncertainties around income, in part due to the recent announcement by then president Jacob Zuma of free education for students with a family income of less than R350,000 per annum.

Of course, it is incumbent on all public universities to remunerate staff appropriately, which is why Wits University had for the past few years systematically benchmarked the salaries of its employees against the rest of the sector and ensured that its remuneration was at a competitive level in relation to other universities.

But we also recognised that our relatively generous remuneration of employees must be balanced against the need for investment in academic programmes, equipment, infrastructure and maintenance, in order to sustain quality teaching, learning and research, which are the core mandates of universities. If we bend the stick too much in one direction, then we violate one or another of our mandates. We therefore need to find an appropriate balance between competing priorities, which requires a fiscal and political maturity from university leaders and a measuredness from employees and students.

It needs to be underscored that universities are largely funded through state subsidies and student fees, and if either income stream is constrained, it impacts severely on the available resources. At the moment, university leaders are caught in a pincer by students who do not want to pay fees, below inflation increases in subsidy from government, and demands for high remuneration from employees. This scenario is just not sustainable and if it persists, the fiscal stranglehold on universities will begin to undermine quality.

It should also be noted that many universities across the country insourced large numbers of staff in the last two years as part of the commitment to social justice and to ensure that those who work on our campuses earn a living wage. At Wits, this entailed 1,500 vulnerable staff being insourced at a cost of R130-million. Within a year, the salaries of these vulnerable workers were doubled and their benefits were substantially increased. Yet the demand for higher salaries in 2018 was made without consideration for this and the numerous competing demands on the university’s finite budget.

Insourcing has also put universities at higher risk of ongoing industrial action, which ultimately results in a constant destabilisation of the sector. Union leaders argue that industrial action can be avoided if their demands are met. However, while union leaders are meant to advance the demands of their members, this does not mean that these demands can be considered outside of the institutional and wider sectoral context in which we find ourselves.

If this pattern continues, it will impact on the future sustainability of higher education institutions, which will eventually lead to a decline in quality, an inability to attract staff and students, and ultimately retrenchments in the universities. To avoid this scenario, we need to pro-actively address the emerging challenge. One way to do this is for union and university leaders to consider multi-year salary negotiation agreements, in order to protect the rights of employees while still ensuring that the sector remains stable. We may also need to consider differential salary agreements that prioritises the poorest among ourselves, although this needs to be time-bound lest we create unintended consequences down the line.

Finally, it would be remiss not to consider the nature of the strike action at universities in recent years. I know Wits best, so will use a recent example to illustrate the point. In January this year, Wits’ newly insourced security personnel heeded calls from their unions to “down tools” and abandon their posts. This put the university at serious risk. Security personnel are after all primarily employed to keep universities, students and employees safe. Ironically, during the recent strike, universities had to bring in external security at an additional cost to protect students, staff and public property. Again, to avoid an incentive emerging for universities to outsource security services, it may be prudent for union leaders and university administrators to pro-actively consider whether campus security should be classified as an essential service.

All of these issues are of course difficult matters to consider. But it is important for national union leaders and internal stakeholders to remember that universities have a mandate to advance the public good and should not be treated like any other industrial workplace. They certainly should not be used as a political tool to advance narrow sectoral agendas.

Rather, it is essential for all stakeholders – university and union leaders, staff, students and political leaders – to work together with integrity to achieve the necessary balance between the short-term needs of each constituency and the long-term institutional obligations to our country.

If we fail to do this, we will compromise the very soul of our universities, undermine the last cohort of quality higher education institutions on the African continent, and once again jeopardise our institutional ability to enable inclusive development.

Professor Adam Habib is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Wits University. This article first appeared on the Daily Maverick.

Shifting ground and quicksand towards Election 2019

- Susan Booysen

Will the new political dynamics of early 2018 still hold by the time South Africa gets to Election 2019, somewhere between April and June next year?

South Africa’s 2019 electoral season is open – and big-campaign, result-changing developments are unfolding. The political ground is shifting, while political parties go into organisation mode, assembling campaign commanders, recruiting foot soldiers and bragging about budgets. The state of readiness is tangible; it is as if the election is now … rather than in 2019.

Will the new political dynamics of early 2018 still hold by the time South Africa gets to Election 2019, somewhere between April and June next year? Will Ramaphoria – citizens’ thankfulness for the end of the Jacob Zuma season, the reward for just not being Zuma, for starting to conduct government as an ethical president and governing party should – still prevail come 2019? Will the opposition parties grow into the new spaces? 

The answers depend on how well the parties handle the present and anticipate conditions a year down the line. The future is not cast in stone. Early campaigning (now and in the coming months) will change the final 2019 pre-election conditions.

Judged by early announcements, the conventional campaign tricks are upon us: there will be rallies with empty but pregnant-with-promise speeches, T-shirts bearing the faces of political gods, and (if the past is anything to go by) food parcels to compensate for non-delivery at other times. Yet, in time, the big “campaign events” of Election 2019 will be remembered as presidential change, and political parties reorienting themselves thereafter.

Voters need to start bracing themselves for waves of election campaigners, from all of the parties that can afford it (but these campaigners will be called “volunteers”) arriving on their doorsteps and phone lines on “listening campaigns”.

In the past the African National Congress has been big on such “listening” – but can there still be credibility in claiming not to have known? Or, can the Democratic Alliance (DA) continue to blame the complexities of multisphere government for conditions on the ground? Other opposition parties have an easier message: “(Of course) things will be better if we get voted in!”

The most-targeted voting bloc in all phases of the campaign will be the young and unemployed: success in targeting the young-unemployed-black category of citizens could deliver for the campaigning parties.

However, political parties beware: past research showed that South African voters are savvy and cynical, and exposure to the Zuma era has fortified these attributes.

The ANC is the big winner in the current phase of campaigning. It is being rewarded handsomely for shedding a president – there is a positive mood generally, the rand has strengthened, there are promises of investment. With Zuma on board the ANC was a sitting campaign duck – opinion polls indicated that a Zumaist ANC could end up on the wrong side of 50%. Then the ANC resuscitated prospects of retaining an outright majority, or do better.

Polling in February this year by Citizen Surveys showed substantial improvements in public perceptions of ANC government performance. Cyril Ramaphosa’s approval rating came in close to 60%, compared with Zuma’s 24% of late 2017. The ANC gained a president who would add rather than detract from ANC support. Political paradise was upon the ANC, albeit a year before the actual election. By the time of the elections – between April and June 2019 – much of the Ramaphosa dividend might have worn off.

Contrasting with this high, in policy forums the ANC was juggling identity issues that were exacerbated by its leadership transition: is the ANC the policy-certain, reasoned political player that global economics expect, or the populist party which plays radical to appease activists and Zumaist campaigners clothed in the radical guise?

These conflicts could catch up with the ANC closer to Election 2019 – except that opposition parties are torn too: the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) dabbles in bromance but constructs distance from the new ANC president; the DA suffers internal fallout because of a seeming absence of answers to the new life the ANC seems to breathe. The opposition parties had to measure up to a new political world. Ironically, their leading roles in #ZumaMustFall helped them to sustain their support bases, but it was the ANC that was rewarded in the main.

The opposition parties could nevertheless be assured of ongoing feasting on the remains of the Zuma era, on complicity and shared responsibility of the current ANC, and incomplete change away from that time. Only sustained, growing and visible action will bring voter rewards to the ANC rather than the opposition: voters want “restitution” for the higher taxes they are paying due to the Zupta excesses.

On the alliances front, formal and informal, several configurations will be affecting the political parties. First, the Tripartite Alliances is in flight again. The SACP has returned to Cabinet. Its electoral outing, contesting 2017 municipal by-elections in Metsimaholo (winning three seats and kingmaker status) is probably an experiment on ice. Cosatu, judged by statements late last year, is reporting for duty, to again help the ANC do election campaign legwork.

More volatile is the bromantic mini-alliance, now you see it, now you don’t, between Julius Malema and Cyril Ramaphosa, especially visible in Parliament (EFF lieutenant Floyd Shivambu looked on, disapprovingly). There were questions: could reconciliation develop? Of course there were denials. Convergence found sustenance in both some broadly shared principles of land redistribution-restitution, and commitment to narratives that are more radical than political practice.

Opinion polls have not been indicating notable growth since 2016 for either the EFF or DA; this meant they require new approaches. The new ANC-EFF affection is impacting on co-operation in metropolitan councils between the EFF and the DA alliance. The EFF with its kingmaker potential is set to convert the Nelson Mandela Bay council into an ANC-EFF-governed local government. The odds are that this post-Zuma realignment could snowball into reconfigurations in other opposition-controlled councils. Perhaps Malema is keeping those cards up his sleeve, for bargaining power on a policy issue or political control further down the line?

Voter registration is unfolding in this phase of electoral preparations, and the EFF shows it has learnt from 2014: its 6% could have been substantially higher had all followers been registered as voters. The DA in 2016 had notable success on this front: much of its performance was due to literally every supporter and member being registered, and being mobilised to vote.

The electoral games of these three parties – the ANC, and the the two main opposition parties – are light years away from the existing microparties, and the only in-between party, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). The IFP in 2016 (and subsequent by-elections) recovered somewhat, and the panning out of the Zuma dynamic in KwaZulu-Natal could create (small) openings for the IFP to win back former support.

Spare a thought for the microparties that operate in political quicksand, which hardly have resources to compete in the ANC-DA-EFF league, and which might be in their last year of parliamentary presence. Or, for Makhosi Khoza’s African Democratic Change, which still has to enter the ring. Their struggle is to retain the 0.25% of national support that will secure them one MP – and a place in the queues who get asked on national platforms for their opinions on the resignation of the president, or the Zupta-damages budget.

Susan Booysen is a Professor in the Wits School of Governance, Wits University. This article first appeared on the Daily Maverick.

Six challenges that impede entrepreneurs with disabilities

- Eugine Tafadzwa Maziriri

South Africa needs to do more to support people living with disabilities who want to run their own businesses.

At present it is hard for them to make a living. Helping them would benefit the broader economy too.

Individuals with disabilities make up 15% of the South African population and it’s estimated that 8 in 10 people living with disabilities are unemployed.

There are some measures in place designed to alleviate the situation. These include the disability grant and some specific provisions in laws such as the equity act, black economic empowerment as well as the Constitution of the country. But these are far from enough.

In a country like South Africa where the unemployment rate is 27.7%, entrepreneurship could save the day. In particular, it could give people with disabilities greater independence and the ability to support themselves financially. They could set their own schedules and reduce transport problems if they were based at home.

Our study set out to identify the difficulties facing entrepreneurs who live with physical disabilities in the country. It focused on an area called Sebokeng, south of Johannesburg. Using qualitative research, the study explored the experiences and perspectives of disabled respondents.

Six themes emerged from the interviews: a lack of equipment and machinery; discrimination; business networking; hardships in obtaining start-up capital; knowledge of support centres and education and training.

The township environment

Sebokeng was established 1965 as a settlement designated for black people under apartheid. Areas like it, known as townships, were designed as labour reserves to supply industries with cheap labour.

The planners of township infrastructure didn’t imagine that residents would ever be self-employed. But entrepreneurs emerged against the odds. And the challenges they face are still enormous.

In Sebokeng, there are businesses like carpentry workshops making household furniture, small scale clothing and food manufacturers.

Disabled people involved in small businesses face the same hurdles as other entrepreneurs, but their difficulties are multiplied. The areas in which they face the biggest challenges include:

Equipment and machinery

Lack of equipment and machinery. Physically disabled entrepreneurs said that most facilities for small business weren’t equipped to accommodate their conditions.

A physically disabled sculptor said:

I believe that the number one limiting factor for some of us is lack of supporting tools and machinery.

A welder said:

Because I am in a wheelchair, the best thing for me would be to have machinery for my business, so that I get on board with new machines that are designed with the user in mind and ultimately increasing the productivity of my business.


Most of the entrepreneurs living with physical disabilities said they lacked confidence as they experienced a lot of discrimination. For example, they said people thought they weren’t competent because they were disabled.

A physically disabled jewellery designer said:

I need answers as to why we have to go through such discrimination and humiliation just because we are physically disabled.

A hairdresser said:

We are always last in line for everything, we are not treated the same because of this stigma.

Business networking

People in business use broader networks to form business relationships that create opportunities all over the world. Most of the participants in our study said they were not involved in business networking activities in the Sebokeng area. They said that they were unable to make and maintain relationships with other people in business because of the discrimination they faced.

A 24-year-old computer programmer told us:

Most entrepreneurs who are not disabled exclude us from their business networking events just because we are physically challenged. This is because they recognise us as entrepreneurs who are very slow in their business operations.

A comment from a 25-year-old entrepreneur was even more telling:

Each time I attend business networking events people see my disfigurement and they wouldn’t want to, or don’t know how to, approach me.

Start-up capital

Getting capital to start a business is always a challenge for entrepreneurs. The majority of the participants said this was an issue, mostly when they sought loans from financial institutions.

A 31-year-old entrepreneur said:

Commercial banks do not want to offer loans to entrepreneurs living with physical disabilities… they are not confident in our competence to run businesses.

Support centres

Study participants were not aware of the government support centres or initiatives to support businesses that are managed and operated by people with physical disabilities. Only a few said that they got support from the government. But the support they received wasn’t enough to sustain them in running their ventures.

Education and training

Education and training also emerged as a critical theme. It is generally accepted that educated entrepreneurs are better able to take advantage of opportunities. Participants in the study said that lack of education and training was a barrier to their success. In the words of one of them:

We do not have adequate knowledge and teaching on how to manage various entrepreneurial businesses.


The South African government needs to do a dedicated review of policies that are meant to support people living with disabilities to give them a better deal. Some old policies will need to be revamped and new ones put in place where necessary. This must be done with a focus on critical areas like education and skills development, start-up finance and to influence the general environment to be more friendly towards people living with disabilities.

The ConversationIt is imperative for business people living with physical disabilities to form networks and partnerships that can be used to lobby and open opportunities.

Eugine Tafadzwa Maziriri, PhD Candidate (School of Economic & Business Sciences), University of the Witwatersrand. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Rebuilding trust is Ramaphosa’s next struggle

- William Gumede

Ramaphosa will have to take control of the economic, justice, security and intelligence, infrastructure, mining and energy clusters of the cabinet.

On the steps of Cape Town City Hall on 11 February to celebrate the 28th anniversary of the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in Paarl, African National Congress (ANC) president Cyril Ramaphosa promised “a new beginning” for the party and the country under his watch. But Ramaphosa will be in the state presidency for less than a year before the 2019 national elections, and this means he will have to choose carefully the priorities that will deliver maximum impact over a short period.

 There are some critical immediate steps Ramaphosa will have to take to kick-start such a new beginning and deliver a real a break from the corruption, public service failures and incompetence of Jacob Zuma’s era. The first will be to get a new cabinet team: fresh ideas, energy and confidence are critical. This may not be so straightforward, however. Support for Ramaphosa and the Zuma camp are about evenly split, so for the sake of unity Ramaphosa will be under pressure to include members of the Zuma faction in his cabinet.
At a minimum, Ramaphosa will have to take control of the economic, justice, security and intelligence, infrastructure, mining and energy clusters of the cabinet. It is not only the ministers in charge that should be replaced, but also the executive management. 
As he makes new appointments, Ramaphosa should bring talents from the wider ANC and non-ANC communities – for example, experienced cadres such as former finance ministers Pravin Gordhan and Nhlanhla Nene, and former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas.  
Zuma has blocked investigations into his own corruption and that of his allies by controlling the crime, intelligence, prosecuting and revenue services. Zuma loyalists in these crucial agencies have also tripped up critics of the President, conscientious employees and whistleblowers. This means that Ramaphosa will have to bring honest managers to run these agencies from top to middle management. 
The South African Revenue Service has been particularly gutted under Zuma. Ramaphosa may have to appoint a big-hitter such as Nene to run the agency in order to restore public confidence. 
Ramaphosa will have to be seen actively dealing with widespread corruption that erodes state efficiency, crushes investor and public confidence, and depresses the economy. Although prosecuting Zuma for grand corruption, incompetence and abuse of his power is an obvious pillar of the anti-corruption fight, there are a number of Zuma’s powerful cabinet, ANC national executive committee, government and business allies who are deeply implicated in wrongdoing. Of them, the Gupta family are just the most publicly talked-about individuals linked to corruption.
Ramaphosa will also have to bring down a couple of untouchable ANC and business figures to show the public his anti-corruption fight will not only focus on the small-time criminals. He should seriously consider establishing a truth and reconciliation-like commission to tackle pervasive corruption in the public and private sectors. 
Ramaphosa will also need a big-bang plan to improve execution of key government programmes, projects and public services. One way to do this is setting up a government-wide task force to monitor delivery bottlenecks in priority programmes, infrastructure projects and public services that are critical to lift growth, create jobs and boost development. 
Ramaphosa will also have to clean up the governance, corruption and inefficiencies in the country’s money-guzzling state-owned enterprises (SOEs), especially the large, growth-critical ones such as state energy utility Eskom, logistics utility Transnet, arms manufacturer Denel and oil company PetroSA. The procurement chains of these SOEs are particular sites for corruption, wastage and patronage. This will mean firing Zuma-aligned allies on boards and executives, cancelling contracts with their companies and bringing in new fresh blood. 
It is crucial that Ramaphosa focuses on boosting investor goodwill. Zuma’s wayward leadership, mismanagement and corruption have eroded business and public confidence. Companies have hoarded savings or invested abroad rather than using it locally to create bricks-and-mortar businesses. 
This means he will have to take up the work that former finance minister Gordhan initiated before he was fired by Zuma last year, in building a partnership for investment, growth and job-creation between government, business and civil society. Ramaphosa has already created a platform through his initiative last year when he united business and labour around the adoption of a minimum wage. 
Ramaphosa will also have to review the controversial third version of the mining charter – steered by mineral resources minister Mosebenzi Zwane, a Zuma loyalist. The charter sets the black economic empowerment priorities for the mining sector and is now the subject of a court battle. 
Ramaphosa will have to call a land summit to bring all stakeholders to map out a policy that looks at all three forms of landholdings: state-owned land, communal land under the trusteeship of traditional authorities, and commercial land (see page 22). What is crucial is for the government to use state-owned land better and to parcel out communal land that is mostly controlled by traditional leaders by giving it to individual households, to provide the poor with assets. 
He will also have to deal with the dramatic decline in public education in black communities – and this will bring him valuable, mass credibility. He will have to organise a summit bringing together all stakeholders, from parents and teachers to communities and students to map out a plan to boost state schooling. 
Ramaphosa needs a couple of big symbolic gestures: such as agreeing that all new cars for members of parliament and cabinet ministers would cost, say, less than R400,000 ($33,000); insisting that ministers’ convoys consist of only one vehicle; and ensuring that big government junkets, such as conferences, will take place in ordinary community halls or on government premises.
Finally, it may not be sexy, but Ramaphosa will have to make a big part of his presidential focus just getting the state to do the things it is expected to do, getting current projects and programmes on track. The equivalent of a programme of fixing broken windows in a bad neighbourhood, it is more necessary and will be more effective than coming up with new, big-bang policies, strategies and projects. 
William Gumede is Associate Professor in School of Governance at Wits University. This article first appeared in the March 2018 print edition of The Africa Report magazine. Read the online article on

Is Ramaphosa's ANC managing the challenge from the EFF?

- Adam Habib

The EFF may be more politically adept, but its track record is as populist, corrupt and administratively incompetent as the Zuma camp ever was.

Too many within our society, including within the ANC and perhaps even Cyril Ramaphosa, believe that the EFF cannot be proto-fascist because it comprises young black people and their intemperateness is really a matter of age. But this is a dangerous illusion.

South Africa is in a very different space to where it was a few months ago. Jacob Zuma's departure has created some hope, especially within the ANC. No longer is the ruling party subjected to scandal after scandal, and no longer is it seen as the willing proxy of a corrupt family. Ramaphosa has also been strategic in the way he has enabled both the departure of Zuma and restructured the leadership. In the former, he carried all of the ANC structures with him until even those in the Zuma camp had begun to tire of the political antics of the former President. Only then did Ramaphosa tighten the noose and call for the motion of no confidence. Similarly, his restructuring of the cabinet did enough to send a signal that change is afoot, but had enough continuity to make all of the party factions feel that they had a future.

Of course there are many who are not happy at the speed and the extent of change. But they do not have to ponder the balance required between keeping the party coherent enough to win the 2019 election and portraying sufficient change to inspire a renewed confidence in the political party. Ramaphosa after all is playing the long game which allows him to deal with some of the more immediate challenges now, while deferring others for a later date. He is also in a position to manage some of his internal party opposition through political means – Cabinet appointments, redeployments - while leaving others to be dealt with through the long arm of the law.

The political renaissance in the ruling party has ruffled the leadership of the opposition and destabilized its alliances. The DA is scrambling to retain its coalitions in the big metropoles – Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg and Pretoria - and redefine its political message. Mmusi Maimane has to first figure out for himself why citizens should vote for him rather than Ramaphosa now that the electoral gift of a corrupt President is no longer available. He has to deal with the perennial problem of the DA; to figure out how to politically sell a message of economic growth with redistribution, and restructuring with inclusion. He also has to unravel from the alliance with the EFF without any of the stink sticking to the DA. After all, there is an element of political hypocrisy in the DA's complaints about the EFF's targeted alignment with the ANC, and its attempts to unseat Athol Trollip in Nelson Mandela. Too many political observers and even supporters cynically respond with what did you expect when you run with the hares and hunt with the hounds?

The EFF is similarly redefining its raison de tat. But addicted as it is to political spectacle, it has become even more prone to a political populism that incites racism, advocates extreme policies outside any evidential base, and creates a militaristic, violent, nihilistic macho-culture. Its strategies and tactics also skirt the very margins of the law - coming close to the advocating of hate speech, threatening individuals, thrashing businesses, violating the rule of law. It claims its rights, but never takes on its responsibilities. In this sense, the behaviour of the EFF is not very different to that of Julius Malema when he was still a foot soldier of Jacob Zuma at the rape trial where he continuously made misogynistic remarks against Khwezi. He may have apologised for that, but his behaviour has never changed. Intemperate was Julius Malema then, and intemperate remains the EFF now. 

In this sense the EFF is very much the creation of Jacob Zuma, even though it may have fallen out with him and assisted in bringing him down. Think of its populist demagoguery and cast an eye back to Jacob Zuma in the Polokwane campaign or his attempts in the last two years, and those of his acolytes including the BFLF, to enable him to remain in power. Think of the corruption of leading lights of the EFF in Limpopo when they still controlled the province under the premiership of Cassel Mathale. Think of the administrative incompetence in the same Limpopo or in the other state institutions where EFF officials had previously reigned supreme. The EFF may be younger and perhaps even more politically adept, but its track record is as populist, corrupt and administratively incompetent as the Zuma camp ever was.

The EFF is also no different from the proto-fascist movements in Western Europe and the United States. Like them it rails against the establishment, eclectically adopts a variety of ideological instruments, and resorts to populist, racist, and cultural demagoguery. There is a belief in South Africa that the EFF's left-leaning policies distinguish it from such proto-fascist movements. But those proto-fascist movements also advocate policies that provide support to and derive electoral nourishment from some of the poor. Think of the Five Star Movement in Italy and its policies for cushioning the poor, or the support that Donald Trump's tariffs on steel and aluminium receives from white workers in Middle America. Similar to the EFF these socio-economic support policies are coupled with racist or anti-immigrant (unlike the EFF) demagoguery directed at further fracturing society. 

Too many within our society, including within the ANC and perhaps even Ramaphosa, believe that the EFF cannot be proto-fascist because it comprises young black people and their intemperateness is really a matter of age. But this too is a dangerous illusion. Proto-fascist movements can emerge across the racial divide. Think of Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India and the fact that many of the proto-fascist parties in Western Europe are also led by young leaders. Luigi Di Maio of the Five Star Movement is only 31 years old and Alice Weidel from Germany's AfD is 38 years old. Both derive their support from younger citizens. The Five Star movement's largest base of support is among young people between 18 and 35 years of age, making it the largest beneficiary in Italy's recent election. Ultimately it is not one's age that defines the progressiveness of one's politics, but one's ideas and behaviour.  It is a lesson South Africans urgently need to learn.

But it is a lesson the ANC needs to learn urgently as well. Ramaphosa's ANC has until now used a mix of appeasement and distance to contain the EFF. Appeasement has involved mollycoddling the EFF by working with it in parliament around legislation associated with land expropriation much to the delight of the Zuma-aligned advocates of Radical Economic Transformation (RET), engaging it on winning over the Nelson Mandela metropole, praising its role as Mcebisi Jonas recently did in airing tough issues, and most importantly, by inviting it back into the ANC because as Ramaphosa phrases it, ‘Julius Malema’… ‘is still an ANC member deep in his heart’. But there is another side to the strategy which is to provide the EFF with sufficient rope so that it politically strangles itself. The ANC thereforeremains silent when Julius Malema embarks on his racist tirades, or it stands aside when the EFF trashes H&M stores or forcibly removes meat products from supermarkets, or has a physical stand-off with right-wing racists in front of young school kids at the Höerskool Overvaal. It is hoped by elements in the ANC that the EFF overplays its hand in these cases and repels the vast majority of South Africans.

The problem with this strategy, however, is the fact that its two elements come into contradiction with each other. The appeasement whether for short-term political gain as is the situation in the Eastern Cape, or to deflect a real demand as in the case of land expropriation, legitimises the EFF and gives it political credence. This same strategy was pursued by the liberal political establishment and its intelligentsia in North America and Western Europe with devastating consequences. The appeasement legitimized these parties with the result that parties that once would receive a fraction of electoral support now are real contenders for the political throne.

But the second element of the state's strategy is also problematic. On the face of it, the ANC's distance and silence in the cases of political spectacle creates the impression that it is politically paralysed and has no alternative strategy to address the very real challenges that the EFF is highlighting. It is worth stating in this moment that the critique of our economic policy or the reconciliation associated with the Rainbow Nation is not new. I recall authoring an article as early as 1996 entitled The Myth of the Rainbow Nation where I questioned the possibility of building reconciliation without justice, and Vishnu Padayachee and I authored in 1999 a critique of what was then our neo-liberal economic policy. We were not the only ones undertaking these kinds of critiques. Many academics and activists warned of the neoliberal direction of our economic policy, and the social consequences thereof, long before many in the EFF did so. Indeed, many of the leadership of the EFF were still within the ANC and would respond in the most Stalinist of fashions to any semblance of critique. To be honest it is a practice that has not changed within its ranks. Nevertheless the point to highlight is that the EFF is not incorrect when it speaks about the exclusionary character of contemporary South Africa. Indeed it is largely accurate in this regard, but as a party it does not put forward a sensible political strategy to address this challenge.

This is where Ramaphosa's ANC needs to advocate a coherent programmatic agenda to address the exclusionary character of South Africa's contemporary political economy. It needs to clarify how it can correct for the state's institutional failures to redistribute land,or to grow the economy in an inclusionary manner so that it not only increases employment, but also reduces inequality and poverty simultaneously. It needs to programmatically demonstrate how justice can be part of a reconciliation agenda or how the building of a cosmopolitan nation can simultaneously be compatible with our collective African-ness coming to the fore. This requires not an appeasement of the EFF, but a demonstration of how to address the challenges they highlight in a programmatic and sustainable manner. It requires Ramaphosa's ANC to lead, rather than to co-opt the EFF, or stand aside and hope that its political contender stumbles. 

Perhaps the best way to articulate the distinctiveness of the two paths is to refer to a movie currently making waves on the cinema circuit, Black Panther. One of largest box office hits in the Marvel series, the movie seems to have generated an ardent fan base because it is centred on a fictional black country, Wakanda, which avoided the perils of colonialism and as a result was able to use its natural resource, Vibranium, to develop not only a successful economy, but also a scientific and technological powerhouse. But perhaps the more useful political message of the movie is centred in the interaction between the hero, T'Challa, and its villain, Erik Killmonger. Both are advocates of a transformation of the world. T'Challa believes that this needs to be done through an engagement with the world and its transformation through a series of structural reforms. Killmonger on the other takes over the kingdom only to deploy its advanced weaponry against the world in order to take revenge for the centuries of oppression and exploitation that black people have suffered. “It’s our turn to rule,” he says, and brings to the fore the dangers of “victims becoming killers,” to paraphrase the title of Mahmood Mamdani's book on the Rwandan genocide. T'Challa sympathises with Killmonger and the circumstances that make him what he becomes, but he nevertheless not only disagrees with him but also challenges him with an alternative path to transforming the world. He defeats him and in a memorable line, T'Challa says: “In times of crisis the foolish build barriers, but the wise build bridges.”

The NEC of the ANC should see this movie, and then internalise its political message, for it holds a strategic lesson that a thousand of its organisational pamphlets will not impart. But it is also a movie that the EFF leadership should also see (which I would be willing to pay for) and they may yet learn something from it if they can suspend their ideological blinkers long enough to consider its central political message. If both actually did this, and grappled with its central political tension, which perhaps is one that confronts all oppressed communities in their struggle for freedom, not only would these parties be strategically the sounder for it, but South Africa itself may benefit from the outcome.

Adam Habib is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Wits University. This article was first published on the Daily Maverick.

The profound impact of Stephen Hawking

- Vishnu Jejjala

He remains a luminary for those of us who study gravity for a living for his deep physical insights.

Stephen Hawking died yesterday. I had dinner with him once in Paris. We were at the same table, but not seated particularly close together. He was accompanied by a phalanx of nurses and attendants. We didn’t get a chance to converse. Hawking entered my consciousness with A Brief History of Time, which I read when I was in high school. His life story is an inspiration, and he is celebrated in culture and pop culture as a public intellectual with an impish sense of humour. He remains a luminary for those of us who study gravity for a living for his deep physical insights. I want to share some of his science and explore how the questions he asked challenge and invigorate our conception of how the universe is structured.

The story begins with Albert Einstein. General relativity teaches us that geometry responds dynamically to the presence of matter or energy by curving, and conversely, that matter moves according to the curvature of spacetime. This is the force of gravity. Among the first solutions to Einstein’s equations is the black hole. Black holes are a laboratory for fundamental physics. Hawking’s scientific contributions consisted of thought experiments performed in this unusual, wonderful laboratory.

To define what a black hole is, we must first notice that nature has a speed limit set by light. Unlike traffic on South Africa’s roads, we cannot go any faster. A black hole is the geometry associated to a mass so heavy that not even light can escape the attractive tug of gravity. At the centre of a black hole there resides a singularity. This is a point where spacetime becomes so strongly curved that the assumption that went into the formulation of general relativity - that geometry is smooth - breaks down. Hawking and Roger Penrose showed that the Big Bang, whence the universe began, corresponds to a similar singularity. Hawking suggested that a quantum theory of gravity may explain physics at the singularity. In order to do this, he and his collaborator James Hartle proposed a wave function of the universe.

Using quantum mechanics, which describes physics at subatomic scales, Hawking observed in the mid-1970s that black holes aren’t black. They radiate. This happens because the vacuum in a quantum theory isn’t empty nothingness. It is dynamical. Particle and antiparticle pairs pop in and out of existence constantly due to vacuum fluctuations. When this process transpires in the vicinity of a black hole, one of the pair may cross through the event horizon, and once it does, it cannot get out again. Consistent with symmetry, its opposite number travels in the other direction, away from the black hole. An observer far away sees the black hole spitting out particles of Hawking radiation. The black hole loses mass, and eventually it evaporates. Hawking’s insight, that the densest objects in the universe glow like a lump of coal, invented black hole thermodynamics.

Black holes are unique solutions to general relativity. This means that any two objects with identical mass and identical rotational properties collapse gravitationally to form the same black hole. One of these objects may have been a star undergoing supernova. The other may have been a cloud of dust. Looking at the black hole in general relativity, it is impossible to tell what it was before the collapse. This fact is in conflict with quantum mechanics, which has as one of its central tenets the principle that information can be neither created nor destroyed. Hawking refined this tension into a sharp paradox. He initially believed that the resolution to the paradox is that information must be lost and the foundations of quantum mechanics need revision.

Like every great scientist, Hawking had the ability to change his mind. In the end, he argued that quantum mechanics prevailed and information is subtly preserved.

Hawking’s ultimate ambition was to explain the structure of spacetime both at the microscopic level and at large scales, to understand how the universe is organised, and why it even exists. These are modern echoes of the first scientific questions that our early human forbears must have asked when they looked up into the night, bellies full after a successful hunt, and contemplated the beauty and the grandeur of the Milky Way. Despite his physical frailties, Hawking had an intuitive grasp of the right questions to ask in order to advance his aim.

Our understanding of what happened at the Big Bang, the quantum underpinnings of black hole thermodynamics, and how information is processed in a black hole spacetime remains incomplete. My own research and the work of much of the international theoretical physics community focuses on these issues. Hawking’s ideas have had a profound and lasting impact on what we know today and how we think about such questions. The ideas also shape the next set of questions we must ask. As we continue our quest, we are extremely fortunate to use as a stepping stone a lifetime of Hawking’s insights.

Vishnu Jejjala is the South Africa Research Chair in Theoretical Particle Cosmology and associate professor in the School of Physics at the University of the Witwatersrand. Ths article was first published on Eyewitness News.

How corporate social responsibility projects can be derailed

- Olorunjuwon Samuel

Many of these projects fail due to cultural insensitivity and misplaced communication strategies.

Big companies operating in developing countries often use corporate social responsibility initiatives to position themselves as development agents and friends of the host communities.

But in places like South Africa – and within the mining sector in particular – initiatives aren’t achieving the objectives they were designed to meet. Animosity between corporations and hosting communities persists.

The Marikana massacre is a case in point. A labour dispute between platinum mining company, Lonmin, and its workers, spiralled out of control, resulting in the death of 34 miners after police opened fire on a demonstration. The events at Marikana show how animosities continue to exist, and the damage they can cause.

One of the factors that’s emerged in the intervening four years is that there were major gaps in Lonmin’s corporate social responsibility programme. An analysis of the Marikana events show that the company failed dismally to meet its housing plans for workers. This left a significant portion of the workforce living in dehumanising conditions.

The Lonmin case illustrates two key areas of failure that are common in approaches taken companies. These are a failure to appreciate the cultural sensitivities of host communities and poor communication.

In our paper we review various approaches taken by companies. The paper uses key dimensions of corporate social responsibility – moral, ethical, economic, cultural and consultative and legal. The aim was to identify which the weakest links in the strategies pursued by big corporates.

The research could contribute to a theoretical framework that can be used to develop negotiated and mutually acceptable outcomes. This could potentially reduce the friction and tension that are often present when corporate social responsibility projects are implemented.

Communication is key

Why do companies engage in corporate social responsibility projects? The main reason is a growing realisation that they have a compelling moral, ethical and legal obligation to protect their operating environment as well as stakeholders. They’re also motivated by strategic and economic imperatives.

Our study confirms two key factors. The first is that communication plays a huge role in corporate social responsibility projects. The second is that many have been derailed by uninformed assumptions about the needs and priorities of host communities.

Adopting a consultative decision making approach is essential. If initiatives are viewed as being community oriented, then it makes sense to involve the intended beneficiaries – both in initiation and implementation.

Our study encountered a case where a company encouraged farmers in the community to form themselves into a cooperative society. The company was collaborating with a university faculty of agriculture to train cooperative farmers. The training focused on the use of modern technology and the cultivation of high yielding crops. The idea was that the company would then purchase the crops at prevailing market prices.

The initiative generated a reasonable amount of employment and sustainable income for the community members. But community leaders reacted with hostility. They dismissed the project because they argued that it was fraught with nepotism and favouritism. They also saw it as an attempt to divide and rule. The project, they said, was devised

to cause confusion amongst our people so that we do not speak with one voice against the operations of the company.

They charged that distributors were selectively appointed by the company without consultation. They added that:

Most of the distributors are relatives or extended family members of a major shareholder of the company, who is a native of our neighbouring village.

The cooperative project became moribund.

The community leaders’ reaction points to poor communication and consultation. A participatory decision making approach would have resolved the community’s allegations and perceptions.

Cultural sensitivities

Our study also shows that corporations should consider cultural and traditional values when initiating projects. Not doing so could prove expensive.

Cultural and property rights practices differ from one jurisdiction to the other. In most African societies, land is central to people’s existence and identity. Cultural beliefs and traditional practices are often tied to the land.

People’s homes, and the land around them, are considered to be a heritage from ones ancestors and must therefore be preserved and sanctified through rituals. These cultural beliefs and practices don’t always make business sense to multinationals. They, perhaps even unconsciously, underestimate the significance attached to ancestral lands.

Land is sometimes appropriated by government, while businesses are required to pay compensation and relocate people. From our interviews, it was inferred that a company does not see anything untoward in acquiring graveyards and compensating families to exhume and re-bury their ancestors.

But communities consider this to be taboo and a process that could invoke the wrath of their ancestors.

It’s therefore imperative for corporations – particularly multinationals – to foster cultural understanding with local communities.

Your heading here

The ConversationOverall, we found that companies were willing to embrace corporate social responsibility. This was often expressed in their vision and mission statements and through considerable monetary allocations towards corporate social responsibility initiatives. But many fail due to cultural insensitivity and misplaced communication strategies.

Olorunjuwon Samuel, Associate Professor, University of the Witwatersrand. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why UNESCO’s ‘natural solutions’ to water problems won’t work in Africa

- Mike Muller

Each year UNESCO releases a World Water Assessment Report, a document that explores potential solutions to the globe’s water problems.

The 2018 report will focus on nature based solutions.

The authors suggest that this approach will

address contemporary water management challenges across all sectors, and particularly regarding water for agriculture, sustainable cities, disaster risk reduction and improving water quality.

It would see the use of “ecosystem services” from the natural environment to provide water supplies and water purification. For example, some of the proposals in the report, with which I have been engaging since 2015, include relying on wetlands to store and purify water rather than building dams and treatment plants.

Although they are attractive, these nature based solutions are not the ‘green bullet’ that will solve the world’s water problems. They can work in some places, but on the whole they face serious limitations. These include the fact that they often require lots of land and compete with farming and housing for space.

On top of this nature based solutions may actually be harmful. They can reduce the amount of water available for human use and contribute to climate change. They may even fail during extreme droughts or floods.

Lastly, they simply cannot respond to the pace at which developing countries are growing and the water requirements and challenges that come with this. This means that nature-based approaches will do little to meet the African continent’s needs.

Lessons from Cape Town

Cape Town’s ongoing water crisis illustrates the problems. The South African city has tried “green” water management options; these have not averted the current crisis.

Take the “Working for Water” programme. Established as a national Public Works Programme in 1995 its aim was to make more water available by cutting alien trees, which are said to consume a great deal of water. Hundreds of millions of rand have been spent around Cape Town as part of this programme. It’s created tens of thousands of short term public works jobs – but provided no relief from the drought.

Another solution that is being implemented is to reuse some of the wastewater the city currently dumps into the sea. This has to be carefully purified. One way to do this would be to use natural purification in large sewage treatment ponds. But land is scarce and there is not nearly enough open space available. Instead, conventional mechanical treatment infrastructure will be needed.

Value in some contexts

This is not to say that nature based solutions have no value – in the right context.

For instance, it makes sense to recharge the groundwater on which many communities depend if there is an opportunity to do so. This approach is being proposed in the report in place of new dams. In the US some states that have large “aquifers” do this regularly. They effectively manage underground storage in aquifers as a dam, pumping water in when they have surplus and extracting it again when they need it.

In Windhoek, Namibia’s capital, the local aquifer whose springs attracted German colonial settlers is now being used to provide additional storage to help the city to survive during its frequent droughts.

But, as the Windhoek case shows, even supposedly natural solutions need an infrastructure of pumps, pipelines, recharge wells and reservoirs. They also require large areas of the city to remain undeveloped so that the underground water is not polluted by people living above it.

So these “natural” methods remain an attractive option for smaller towns; the challenge for larger cities is often their extensive land requirements.

Proponents of nature-based approaches also often fail to recognise their down-sides. Sustainable urban drainage, for instance, uses grassy areas and permeable pavements to slow the flow of storm water and allow it to soak into the soil. While some may recharge groundwater, much is lost to evaporation and so reduces the flow of water into rivers and dams.

In South Africa, only around 8% of rainfall actually reaches rivers and dams. Reducing that flow will actually reduce the amount of water available for use and increase water scarcity.

Similarly, while proponents of nature based solutions make much of the ability of wetlands to store water and release a small and steady flow after a flood, they also lose large quantities of water through evaporation. 94% of the Okavango River, southern Africa’s third largest, is lost to evaporation in this way from Botswana’s Okavango swamps, as is half of the flow of the White Nile from the Sudd swamps of Southern Sudan.

Wetlands also aggravate the problems of climate change and accelerate global warming. They are the largest single emitters of methane, a potent greenhouse gas which is driving global warming. More methane is generated by wetlands than from all human sources – and this is expected to increase as the earth warms.

Large challenges

The real problem is that the nature based approaches originated in the context of Europe and North America. These regions have already built many of the infrastructure systems they need, from dams and pipe networks to wastewater treatment works. They do not have Africa’s huge infrastructure deficit.

Rich country populations are static. With their basic needs now met, they seek to improve the quality of their environment. But developing countries face a completely different kind of challenge. As an example, by 2050 sub-Saharan Africa’s urban population is expected to increase by 720 million people while Europe’s will grow by just 36 million.

The ConversationSo, while some nature-based approaches may be relevant, the reality is that they will make only a small contribution to the large challenges that the developing world must address.

Mike Muller, Visiting Adjunct Professor, University of the Witwatersrand. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

New insights into how southern African pythons look after their babies

- Graham Alexander

Snakes are probably not the first creatures that spring to mind when you think about caring parents.

But recent research has shown that several snake species are far more tender than their reputation suggests. We know now, for instance, that rattlesnakes den communally in winter while some species can recognise their kin.

I spent seven years studying wild pythons in the Dinokeng Game Reserve north of Pretoria, South Africa. Pythons were implanted with radio-transmitters and temperature recording dataloggers. When females laid eggs, I used surveillance video cameras installed in the underground nest chambers, usually in aardvark burrows, to record the behaviour of the breeding mothers and their babies in a natural setting.

I have made some important findings. For example, while it is well known that python mothers across all species incubate their eggs, we’ve now learned that southern African python mothers go one step further. They remain at the nest site with their newly-hatched young for two weeks or more. This discovery, which I recently published in the Journal of Zoology, marks the first known case of mothers in egg-laying snake species remaining with the clutch after the babies had hatched.

And I discovered that when southern African female pythons breed they change colour to almost black during the six month cycle. This process, known as facultative melanism, has not been reported in snakes before. It’s probably an adaptation that allows for faster rates of heating during basking, which is important for keeping the eggs and hatchlings warm.

This study highlights just how much there still is to discover about snakes. Even large, iconic snakes such as pythons still harbour many secrets. Unravelling the secrets matters because knowing more about the reproductive biology of snakes and lizards can reveal shed light on the evolution of parental care in birds and mammals.

Making babies and changing colour

Mating in southern African pythons is a serious business, and is rarely just a one-night stand. Some males were recorded remaining with receptive females for months. In one instance a male followed a female for more than 2 kilometres over a three month period. And when he went through a shedding cycle and got left behind, he found her again after she had moved a kilometre away.

The female’s dark breeding coloration, and the resulting heat retention, is important. Mothers of some types of python, such as Burmese python, are able to metabolically raise their body temperature, using the heat to incubate their eggs. This physiological response is termed facultative thermogenesis.

The southern African python and Burmese python are close relatives, but southern African pythons are not able to generate heat in this way. They rely solely on basking to raise their body temperature to almost 40 °C, then return to the nest cavity and coil around their eggs to warm them with their sun-derived body heat.

Body temperatures of receptive, pregnant and brooding female southern African pythons are more than 5 °C warmer than non-reproductive females. Even the body temperatures of baby-attending mothers are significantly higher than non-breeding females. These high temperatures are thought to improve egg development in the female, help with incubation and then help the babies to digest the last remaining egg yolk once they have hatched.

After southern African python babies hatch, they remain at the nest site with the mother. For the first day or so, they remain on the clutch of eggs, but they then regularly trek to the surface where they bask for short periods tightly packed together with their nest mates. At night, the babies rest protected and warmed in their mother’s coils in the nest chamber. The babies shed their skin 12 to 14 days after hatching. A few days later, they all disperse from the nest during the night.

A gruelling process

Reproduction takes a lot out of a female southern African python. Breeding females lose about 40% of their pre-laying body mass. In spite of this, they devote themselves to their clutch and don’t feed during their pregnancy, egg brooding and while they stay with their young – a period of more than six months.

By the time they leave the nest, the females start foraging for food, typically by lying in ambush along a game path. The most common prey for large female pythons are impala and grey duiker, but a wide range of prey can be on the menu.

The ConversationThey may take several years to recover their body condition. So, at best, wild female southern African pythons breed only every other year. Males, meanwhile, are sexually active every year.

Graham Alexander, Professor of Herpetology, Environmental Physiology and Physiology, Ecology and Evolution, University of the Witwatersrand. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Trump should be the trigger for Africa to find common cause with Americans

- John J Stremlau

Three key elements essential to protecting and defending democracy are now crucial in containing Trump’s threats to democracy.

To reassure and reiterate America’s commitments to a positive Africa agenda of cooperation US President Donald Trump sent his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, to the continent in early March. But four hours after he arrived back in Washington after a whistle-stop tour of five African countries, Tillerson learned in a Trump tweet that he had been fired.

Africans had reasons to be sceptical about the Tillerson trip even before it began, as I argued before he set off. But I had not anticipated that Tillerson and his mission would also be dramatically and precipitately diminished.

It is unlikely that Africa-US relations will improve as long as Trump remains president. The president has appointed Mike Pompeo, director of the CIA, as his new secretary of state. Before joining the administration, Pompeo served as a conservative Republican congressman from rural Kansas. He has no notable foreign policy experience, much less interest in or knowledge of, African affairs.

But that doesn’t mean that African leaders should throw up their hands in despair. The Trump era, if approached with wisdom, offers opportunities for new ways of examining issues, new alliances and new areas of cooperation. This is because Trump has triggered concerns that are shared by democrats on both sides of the Atlantic, such as the need to fight racism and the need for strong democratic institutions.


Africans, of course, have other important relationships to pursue with other non-African partners. Planning for the next Forum for China-Africa Cooperation, is well underway, and most African leaders are expected to attend the September gathering in Beijing.

Africa was also high on the agenda of last June’s G-20 summit in Germany, despite Trump’s indifference to the gathering.

But the US is too important for African countries to ignore. Preparing and promoting a more active and constructive African strategy for engaging America, whoever is in power, was discussed at a diverse gathering of scholars and officials at Wits University, on March 8 to 10. This also marked the official launch of a new African Centre for the Study of the United States.

Three aspirations of the new centre are noteworthy. One is that its agenda will be demand driven. This means it will be set by what Africans from around the continent most need – and want to know – to manage their relations with America.

Another is that the agenda will be much broader and deeper than conventional international relations and the foreign police agendas of sovereign states.

Thirdly, a multi-disciplinary approach to research and training will be adopted. The aim will be twofold. Firstly to achieve short-term political and policy relevance for Africa. Secondly, to illuminate longer term trends of integration regionally and globally that can accelerate as Africans and Americans learn and teach each other.

Shared agendas

One potentially positive, if unintentional, effect of Trump’s actions thus far, has been to stir up resistance and fresh soul-searching among Americans about basic issues and values that are shared with Africa. Several examples stand out: gender, race, economic inclusion, the freedom and integrity of the press, the judiciary and elections. All are complex yet crucial for sustainable democracy and constitutional order in African countries as well as the US.

Since Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, new political pressure has been unleashed for gender justice and equality. Campaigns such as the #MeToo movement, for example, have quickly spread globally. If, as current US polling suggests, this influences voting patterns in upcoming Congressional and Presidential elections, there will likely be secondary foreign relations effects across Africa as well.

Trump has also been the catalyst for new degrees of both racial awareness as well as injustice. One of America’s leading black writers, Ta-Neshi Coats, aptly describes Trump as America’s “first white president’ in his book We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. This is because Trump, unlike any of his predecessors, campaigns and rules as a white-ethnic-nationalist.

Africans need to critically assess whether, in reaction, a coalition of diverse identities predominates in upcoming elections. Either way, the outcome will have an impact on Africa-US relations.

Containing Trump

Three key elements essential to protecting and defending democracy – on the continent and elsewhere in the world – are now crucial in containing Trump’s threats to democracy.

One is maintaining the integrity of free and factual reporting by the media. The others are a strong and resilient independent judiciary, and credible elections. The world is living through a period of ill-liberalism. This is being marked by the triumph of strongmen over constitutional orders which has become a global scourge.

The ConversationTrump will continue to dominate world headlines in 2018. But on July 18, South Africans and the world will pause to celebrate the centennial of the birth of Nelson Mandela. No one better exemplifies the democratic ideals that Trump defiles. Africans and Americans must rededicate themselves to strive for the standards Mandela revered. Perhaps then we will be touched again by what America’s greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, knew were "the better angels of our nature”.

John J Stremlau, 2017 Bradlow Fellow at SA Institute of International Affairs, Visiting Professor of International Relations, University of the Witwatersrand. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How investigative journalists helped turn the tide against corruption

- Anton Harber

The last year also saw a rise in the intimidation and harassment of journalists in South Africa.

Every year South African investigative journalists are recognised for their hard work when the winners of the Taco Kuiper Award for Investigative Journalism are announced. This year has provided a chance to assess the highs and the lows of our investigative reporting after an extraordinary year.

For the last few years, it seemed that the country was facing an impervious culture of impunity. Many state institutions of accountability faltered, and corruption appeared to be undermining democracy and destroying the economy. But small groups of investigative journalists beavered away. They pieced together the elements of what grew into a remarkable story of a systematic attempt to control the machinery of state for personal gain – what has become known as state capture.

For some time it had been a back-and-forth of allegation and counter-allegation, charge and denial. But in the last few months things turned around with the emergence of a trove of leaked emails. These provided the hard evidence of the depth and breadth of the attempt to take control of elements of the state. Teams of journalists did meticulous and highly skilled work to mine the emails and weave together a full picture.

South Africa now appears to have started – only started, as there is a long way to go – the process of forcing accountability and transparency on those who were responsible, and can appreciate how central journalists have been to this apparent turnaround.

I know of only a few times in the history of a nation when journalists have played such a clear and crucial role in bringing a country back from the brink. South Africa’s journalists were not alone in this. They worked side-by-side with civil society and the judiciary in particular. But never has it been clearer how important a free press, skilled investigative reporters and the support of brave editors is to a democracy, its economy and the people who live in it.

Important trends

Some important trends can be seen from this year’s Taco Kuiper Awards.

The major one was how much of this work has become collaborative. The collaboration has not only been in the form of teams of people working together. What’s different is that the teams have cut across media outlets and types. This is an international pattern, as the scale and complexity of large investigative stories are often too much for one journalist or even one newsroom to handle.

What’s also notable about the South African experience is that journalists from different newsrooms didn’t just cooperate, but helped, promoted and protected each other.

Print and online journalists led the charge with the power of the broadcast media only occasionally being brought to bear. And most of the best work was done with the support of philanthropists and foundations, rather than in commercial newsrooms. This is a major signal of where South Africa’s journalism is headed.

Interesting too is that although there was one big story, there was also a remarkable array of other investigative work. A science writer used mortality data to expose the problem that one in 10 bodies in the country’s mortuaries are unclaimed and get pauper’ burials. Another used sophisticated tools to uncover who lay behind fake news websites. And one journalist went in search of former mineworkers who could not be found to give them their pensions. He showed that they were easily found, and their lives would be radically changed by getting the money owed to them.

This is work that changed the lives of ordinary people.

Rise in harassment

The last year also saw a rise in the intimidation and harassment of journalists in the country. This included violent attacks on reporters at work, threats to those covering contentious issues and the “weaponisation” of social media – the use of robots and fake news to target critical journalists.

Thuggish protesters threatened an editor in his home, and disrupted a public meeting of journalists. Fake news perpetrators targeted editors, and for the first time that I know of journalists took out a restraining order against organisations and individuals that were responsible for some of this activity. Veteran muckraker Jacques Pauw was pursued by authorities who wanted to stop him publishing and get his sources.

The other negative trend was that a few news outlets were accused of promoting or supporting state capture, where journalists allowed themselves to be used by those who wanted to cover up what they were doing. This drives home, the award judges said:

the need for vigilance and the utmost professionalism to ensure that journalists build trust and credibility and serve the public interest – rather than narrow, personal or factional interests.

The ConversationAnton Harber is convenor of judges in the Taco Kuiper Awards, hosted by Wits Journalism with the Valley Trust.

Anton Harber, Caxton Professor of Journalism, University of the Witwatersrand. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How we recreated a lost African city with laser technology

- Karim Sadr

LiDAR, was used to “redraw” the remains of the city, along the lower western slopes of the Suikerbosrand hills near Johannesburg.

There are lost cities all over the world. Some, like the remains of Mayan cities hidden beneath a thick canopy of rainforest in Mesoamerica, are found with the help of laser lights.

Now the same technology which located those Mayan cities has been used to rediscover a southern African city that was occupied from the 15th century until about 200 years ago. This technology, called LiDAR, was used to “redraw” the remains of the city, along the lower western slopes of the Suikerbosrand hills near Johannesburg.

It is one of several large settlements occupied by Tswana-speakers that dotted the northern parts of South Africa for generations before the first European travellers encountered them in the early years of the nineteenth century. In the 1820s all these Tswana city states collapsed in what became known as the Difeqane civil wars. Some had never been documented in writing and their oral histories had gone unrecorded.

Four or five decades ago, several ancient Tswana ruins in and around the Suikerbosrand hills, about 60 kilometres south of Johannesburg, had been excavated by archaeologists from the University of the Witwatersrand. But from ground level and on aerial photos the full extent of this settlement could not be appreciated because vegetation hides many of the ruins.

But LiDAR, which uses laser light, allowed my students and I to create images of the landscape and virtually strip away the vegetation. This permits unimpeded aerial views of the ancient buildings and monuments.

We have given the city a generic placeholder name for now – SKBR. We hope an appropriate Tswana name can eventually be adopted.

Bringing the city to life

Judging by the dated architectural styles that were common at SKBR, it’s estimated that the builders of the stone walled structures occupied this area from the fifteenth century AD until the second half of the 1800s.

The evidence we gathered suggests that SKBR was certainly large enough to be called a city. The ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur was less than 2km in diameter while SKBR is nearly 10km long and about 2km wide.

The ancient homesteads at Suikerbosrand are shown against an aerial photograph from 1961. The two rectangles show the footprint of the LiDAR imagery. Karim Sadr

It is difficult to estimate the size of its population. Between 750 and 850 homesteads have been counted at SKBR, but it’s hard to tell how many of these were inhabited at the same time, so we cannot easily estimate the city’s population at its peak.

Given what we know about more recent Tswana settlements, each homestead would have housed an extended family with, at the least, the (male) head of the homestead, one or more wives and their children.

Many features of the built environment at SKBR seem to signal the wealth and status of the homesteads or suburbs that they are associated with. For example, parallel pairs of rock alignments mark sections of passageways in several different parts of the city.

South African archaeologist Professor Revil Mason, who has carried out a great deal of research on stone walled ruins around Johannesburg, called these features cattle drives, built to funnel the beasts along certain routes through the city.

If these were cattle drives the width and location of these passageways would have signalled the livestock wealth of the ward or homestead that constructed them, even when the cattle were not present.

In the central sector of SKBR there are two very large stone walled enclosures, with a combined area of just under 10, 000 square meters. They may have been kraals and if so they could have held nearly a thousand head of cattle.

Monuments to wealth

Among the largest features of the built environment at SKBR are artificial mounds composed of masses of ash from cattle dung fires, mixed with bones of livestock and broken pottery vessels. All this material appears to have been deliberately piled up at the entrance to the larger homesteads.

These are the remains of feasts and the ash heaps’ size publicised the particular homestead’s generosity and wealth. The use of refuse dumps as landmarks of wealth and power is known from other parts of the world, like India, as well. Even the contemporary gold mine dumps of Johannesburg can be seen in this light.

Other monuments to wealth and power at SKBR include a large number of short and squat stone towers – on average 1.8 - 2.5 metres tall and about 5 metres wide at their base. The homesteads with the most stone towers tend to also have unusually large ash heaps at their entrance. The practical function of the towers isn’t known yet: they may have been the bases for grain bins, or they may mark burials of important people.

It will take another decade or two of field work to fully understand the birth, development and ultimate demise of this African city. This will be done through additional coverage with LiDAR, intensive ground surveys as well as excavations in selected localities.

The ConversationIdeally, the descendants of those who built and inhabited this city should be involved in future research at this site. Some of my postgraduate students are already in contact with representatives of the Bakwena branch of the Tswana who claim parts of the landscape to the south of Johannesburg. We hope that they will actively become involved in our research project.

Karim Sadr, Professor Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies, University of the Witwatersrand. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Ramaphosa makes noises about backing small business. It’s about time

- Boris Urban

The structure of the South African economy is often overlooked as a factor of small business and entrepreneurship.

South Africa’s new president, Cyril Rampahosa, is promising to free up and propel the country’s small business sector and its natural partner entrepreneurship, a long overdue move that could help the country realise strong economic growth.

South Africa has been trapped in a low growth trajectory for about 10 years. This has made it difficult to reduce high levels of poverty, inequality and unemployment. For a while now, many have pointed out that harnessing the small business sector and entrepreneurship lies at the centre of the solution.

Ramaphosa has added his voice to this chorus. Coming from a man whose had close links to business, the president’s promise to support entrepreneurship and small business development deserves to be taken seriously.

In his hope-filled 2018 state of the nation address, he touched the essence of what drives entrepreneurship. He said:

While change can produce uncertainty, even anxiety, it also offers great opportunities for renewal and revitalisation, and for progress.

It is precisely at the nexus of uncertainty and opportunity that entrepreneurship takes place. According to the traditional neoclassical view, entrepreneurship is the ‘mystical’ element that delivers external shocks to a state of equilibrium in the marketplace by introducing new products and services.

Without the presence of these two factors – lucrative opportunities and enterprising individuals – very little renewal or revitalisation will take place in South Africa.

Ramaphosa knows this. But it won’t be easy, even for him. The neglect and the damage caused to the small business sector and the culture of entrepreneurship over the years is huge. Years of red tape, corruption, bad policies, ill equipped small business support institutions and monopolistic behaviours have stifled entrepreneurial activity.

But the situation won’t change unless a close and detailed look is taken at the accumulated problems. And solutions that are designed must take into account a multitude of factors.

A lack of entrepreneurial activity

There’s growing evidence showing that developing countries offer more entrepreneurial opportunities. There’s also evidence that these are being matched by higher rates of opportunity driven entrepreneurs entering the market.

A recent study found that more than half (69%) of entrepreneurs in developing countries chose to pursue an opportunity as a basis for their entrepreneurial motivations, rather than starting out of necessity.

South Africa has an unusually low share of employers and self-employed people in the labour force. It also has a relatively low share of working age adults in employment. This is a major factor behind the country’s high joblessness .

In fact, South Africa’s total entrepreneurial activity rate, which measures the prevalence of starting a business from a country’s working age population, remains among the lowest in the peer group of developing nations. The series of Global Entrepreneurship Monitor reports, show that just 9.2% of South African adults were involved in starting up a business in 2015. This compares poorly to the average of 15% in comparable countries like Malaysia, Latvia, Romania, Argentina and Brazil. Ecuador has an entrepreneurial activity rates of 34%, Chile 26%.

Even more disconcerting is the fact that in South Africa many initiatives and programmes sponsored by national government are not yielding much. Many institutions supporting small business development are dogged by bureaucratic inefficiencies and inter-departmental conflicts.

The major weakness of these national institutions is centralised coordination. They are not well suited to react quickly and dynamically.

There is also enormous red tape facing small businesses and entrepreneurs. For instance South Africa’s labour laws have been found to be a significant regulatory obstacle to small business growth. And small business is also subjected to long and gruelling delays to get permits and licences. This makes for a corruption rife environment.

Ramaphosa has acknowledged the negative impact of bureaucracy, red tape and corruption on the economy and for start-ups and enterprise growth.

What’s needed now is action.

Hostility towards small business

The structure of the South African economy is often overlooked as a factor of small business and entrepreneurship. The country’s economy has traditionally been hostile towards small businesses. This is largely due to its distinctive economic history, which created highly concentrated markets.

Several industries in South Africa can be categorised as tight oligopolies, where several large firms dominate the competitive landscape. They hold considerable market power and are protected by high entry barriers. Small businesses are kept at bay.

About half of the country’s small businesses are in business services and retail. In the informal sector the self-employed are overwhelmingly in retail.

It’s hard for South African small businesses to penetrate lucrative sectors such as electricity, gas, water and manufacturing. Entry barriers are extremely high which leaves old monopolies in a comfortable place to the detriment of the broader economy.

Reinventing entrepreneurship

If entrepreneurship is to be rekindled the first thing that needs to happen is some readjustment in the structure of the country’s economy. Key adjustments should ensure:

  • An environment that offers equal access to opportunities, development tools and access to resources.

  • A robust and interactive entrepreneurship ecosystem system that connects everything – from suppliers, distribution channels, universities to venture capital.

  • Improved access to finance as well as market access for small businesses.

  • Long-term investments in entrepreneurial capital which mainly requires quality education.

South Africa must realise that small businesses are not simply smaller versions of big business. They are vulnerable because they’re small and new. They need a supportive environment and a mix of responsive policy interventions.

But entrepreneurs can’t simply sit back and blame the environment. Entrepreneurs need to develop a hard-headed awareness of market realities and hard-won business truths. Entrepreneurship requires individuals to take action.

Small scale entrepreneurs must be alive to the dictum which says:

The ConversationBig businesses are not against you; they are merely for themselves.

Boris Urban, Professor Wits Business School, University of the Witwatersrand. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Explainer: what happens when a bank is put into curatorship

- Jannie Rossouw

The South African Reserve Bank has placed a small bank – VBS Mutual Bank – under curatorship.

The South African Reserve Bank has placed a small bank – VBS Mutual Bank – under curatorship. The decision was based on concerns that the bank was facing a liquidity crisis and could collapse, devouring depositors’ funds. Some have criticised the decision. Sibonelo Radebe from The Conversation Africa asked Jannie Rossouw to explain the process.

What is curatorship?

In simple terms curatorship of a bank means that its board and executive management are relieved of their duties. A curator is appointed by the South African Reserve Bank in consultation with the National Treasury and the Minister of Finance. The curator takes over the full management functions of the bank with the purpose of rehabilitating it.

Curatorship is triggered by concerns about the management or financial viability of the bank. For example, if the board or executive management are found guilty of fraud, the central bank can remove them and appoint a curator to manage the bank until new management is put in place.

Financial viability concerns can trigger curatorship if a bank faces liquidity or solvency problems. This is what happened at VBS. The central bank’s view was that it faced a liquidity crisis – in other words it was running short of cash to meet its obligations, mainly repayment of deposits.

Liquidity problems happen when bank deposits are withdrawn at a faster rate than they can be replaced by new deposits. This is normally a temporary problem, as a well functioning bank can restore its liquidity levels by taking in new deposits or by reducing in its lending activities.

Banks can also face solvency problems. This is different to a liquidity crunch: it’s when a bank goes bust because loans it has made can’t be repaid. In 2001 a South African bank, Regal Treasury Bank went insolvent.

Although the South African Reserve Bank can still appoint a curator when a bank experiences solvency problems, the chances of recovery are slim. This was the case with Regal Treasury Bank which was placed under curatorship but never recovered. It was subsequently liquidated.

Is there an alternative to curatorship?

The alternative to curatorship is liquidation which involves winding down the operations of a bank.

Whereas curatorship is primarily aimed at rehabilitating the operation, liquidation is all about closing it down.

If a bank can’t meet its commitments (and a curator isn’t appointed speedily to save the situation), it’s likely to go bust and head straight into liquidation.

A bank can re-emerge from curatorship, but not from liquidation.

An example of successful rehabilitation after when a curator was appointed is African Bank. After being placed under curatorship in 2014, it developed into a healthy operation again. Curatorship in this case helped to restore confidence in the bank.

This is likely to apply in the case of VBS because it remains fully operational. At the same time its employees – but not the board members and the executive management – are protected as they still have their jobs. This would not be the case if the bank was forced to close.

Was curatorship the right answer for VBS?

Yes, without any doubt. VBS is a perfect example of a bank being saved from liquidation through curatorship. If the bank was not placed in curatorship, it would have had to be liquidated and forced to shut up shop. This would have meant job losses.

The reason VBS got into trouble was that it took deposits it shouldn’t have. As a mutual bank, registered under the Mutual Banks Act of 1993, it should not have accepted deposits from municipalities because the Municipal Finance Management Act of 2003 prohibits it.

Only commercial banks registered in terms of the Banks Act of 1990 may accept deposits from municipalities. In taking deposits from municipalities, VBS contravened a law that protects the financing of local government authorities. The law doesn’t allow mutual banks to accept municipal deposits. The aim is to mitigate risks for both the bank and the municipalities.

Taking deposits from municipalities was also inviting liquidity problems for VBS. As the South African Reserve Bank governor put it:

It was highly risky for VBS to take sizeable municipal deposits that were short-term and lend them out long term.

This meant that there was a mismatch between the bank’s deposits and its exposure to loans it was giving out.

Once it was established that VBS had broken the law, it was ordered to return the municipality deposits. This put it under even more pressure from a liquidity point of view.

The board and executive management of VBS are to blame for the problems at the bank and for its curatorship. They were in clear dereliction of their duties in accepting municipal deposits in the first instance. Accepting these deposits was in clear contravention of the law – something the board, the executive management and the compliance officer should never have agreed to. They should be taking the blame for the curatorship rather than to try and blame others. They might even have to face charges.

The ConversationFortunately, VBS is a very small bank in the South African banking landscape and its impact is too small to have triggered a systemic banking crisis. It is also reassuring to note the continuation of employment of the staff members of VBS Bank.

Jannie Rossouw, Head of School of Economic & Business Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

VAT zero-ratings finely balanced

- Imraan Valodia and David Francis

The most likely alternative to VAT the Treasury would have taken would have been further cuts in expenditure - a move that would have cost the poor a lot more.

Since the announcement in the finance minister’s budget speech of the increase in value-added tax (VAT) from 14% to 15%, comment on the effect of the hike has focused on three questions: Is VAT regressive? Will it place an unfair burden on the poor? Can zero-rating be extended to ameliorate the effect on the poor?

The evidence is quite clear. VAT is not regressive; it is very slightly progressive.

The richest decile in SA pays about 12% of its disposable income in VAT, while the poorest decile pays about 9.5%. VAT efficiently raises a large amount of revenue from the wealthy.

For the forthcoming one percentage point increase, revenue will increase by about R22.9bn. SA’s income deciles 1-9 will pay about R9.26bn (43.34%), while decile 10 (the richest) will pay R13.63bn (56.66%). The poorest will pay just more than R1m.

Notwithstanding this evidence, there is still a great deal of concern about what the effect will be on poor households.

The table shows the costs of the VAT increase for the average household in SA. Assuming everything else stays the same, the poorest households, which spend R13,782 a year, will, after the VAT increase to 15%, pay R13,902 to buy the same basket of goods. The poorest people will pay an extra R121 a year in VAT, while the richest households will pay an extra R5,694 in VAT a year. The burden on the very poor will thus be about R10 a month.

The most likely alternative to VAT the Treasury would have taken would have been further cuts in expenditure.

This would have been a very regressive move and would have cost the very poor a lot more than R10 per month.

One way to protect the poor would be to expand the basket of goods that are zero-rated. Since food items are by far the largest component of what low-income households consume, this is the obvious place to look. Households in the poorest decile spend 35% of total household expenses on food, compared to just 6% for the richest decile.

Zero-rating an item is equivalent to the government providing a subsidy to households that consume it. The problem with zero-rating is that while it protects the poor, it also results in a subsidy to rich households that also consume the goods, and results in a reduction in revenue from VAT.

Given that some level of subsidy to the rich is unavoidable, one way to analyse the distributive effects of zero-rating is to use a "benefit ratio rule" of three.

For an item to be zero-rated, the benefit accruing to the poor (deciles 1-7) must be more than three times that accruing to the non-poor (deciles 8-10).

This ignores a number of other important considerations that should be considered, most important the promotion of consumption that may improve health outcomes.

Using this guideline shows that the current zero-rating system is well targeted, with one or two exceptions such as milk, where the rich receive a large subsidy (the benefit ratio for milk is only 0.8). The other zero-rated items are, for the most part, well targeted.

To address inequality, what other items should be zero-rate? If the rule of three is applied, no additional food items are appropriate for zero-rating.

According to the Income and Expenditure Survey, expenditure on "solid fuels", which includes firewood, charcoal, candles and coal, shows a benefit ratio of 3.19 and some items in this category could conceivably be zero-rated after analysis of the practical implications.

If the benefit ratio rule of three is reduced to a benefit ratio rule of two — the benefits accruing to the poor should be at least twice that to the non-poor — there are still no additional food items that should be zero rated.

An item to consider is poultry products, which forms an important part of the basket of goods consumed by low-income households. The average decile 1 household spent R147 in VAT on poultry products a year, compared to R279 for the richest households.

Zero-rating chicken would result in a benefit ratio of 1.82 – reasonably close to two. This is a higher benefit ratio than for milk, fruit and vegetables, which are currently zero-rated.

Zero-rating chicken, however, would result in about R3.2bn in foregone revenue from VAT, and R1.1bn of this accrues to deciles 8-10; essentially a large subsidy for the rich. The poorest three deciles, meanwhile, would benefit from a subsidy of R761m.

SA is very close to the limits of using zero-rating in the VAT system to protect low-income households. Any significant zero-rating will result in a very large consumption subsidy to the non-poor and a significant loss in revenue for the state.

In its first interim report on VAT, the Davis Tax Committee argued that the benefits of zero-rating have been exhausted, and strongly recommended that no additional items be zero rated.

Inequality cannot be examined or addressed with reference only to the revenue side of the budget. The tax system is designed to collect as much tax as efficiently as possible, with the least amount of restrictions and special provisions.

Reducing poverty and growing well-paid employment is far better dealt with on the expenditure side of the budget. This can be done through pro-poor spending and investment on, among others, education, health, transport and social grants.

If this is done properly, then it is clear that the R121 the very poor pay every year is a good policy choice.

Imraan Valodia is the Dean of the Faculty of Commerce, Law and Management, and David Francis is a Researcher in Economics at Wits University. This article was originally published on

We’ve come up with a TB test that’s cheaper, quicker and more accurate

- Bavesh Kana

Tuberculosis (TB) is a disease that kills more people due to a bacterial infection than any other disease in the world.

In 2016, the World Health Organisation reported over 10 million new infections and 1.7 million deaths. In South Africa, TB remains one of the leading causes of death.

Countries with high TB burdens are tackling the problem in two ways: with the BCG vaccine – the most widely administered vaccine in human history – and a chemotherapeutic regimen. Nevertheless, there are still multiple obstacles to getting the disease under control.

To make major strides, the world needs better interventions, vaccines and ways of diagnosing TB. In addition, new drugs are needed to tackle drug resistant strains and reduce treatment duration.

Extensive effort has been put into improving diagnostics. This makes sense for two reasons: diagnosing people earlier and faster means they get onto treatment earlier, and it reduces the risk of transmission.

There are three ways in which TB is diagnosed: through a sputum smear test; by growing bacteria in a lab through a process known as culturing; and by using molecular diagnostics to detect DNA components of the bacteria.

But each has limitations preventing them from being scaled up. We set about bridging this gap.

In our study we’ve identified a way to speed up the age-old sputum smear test by using an invisible ink that lights up when it comes in contact with the TB bacteria. The ink significantly reduces the processing time to get a positive reading on a test. It’s also inexpensive which means our new method paves the way to introducing a test in communities where dozens of diagnostic tests need to be administered each day.

Limitations to existing tests

The current range of TB diagnostic tests have various limitations.

For example, the sputum smear is 100 years old. It’s outdated, clumsy and takes long to process. It’s also not very accurate because each sputum sample must contain more than 10 000 bacteria for an accurate test. This means it doesn’t work with patients who have a low number of bacteria.

The challenge is that people with an HIV and TB co-infection have significantly lower levels of bacteria because HIV remodels the way the disease occurs in the lung.

Diagnosing TB in this cohort of people is problematic, particularly in countries like South Africa with the highest HIV and TB co-infection rate in the world.

Another limitation with smear methods are that they can’t distinguish between living and dead bacteria – making it hard to tell if a person is responding well to treatment.

One of the other methods, culturing, also has serious limitations. For one, it’s a lengthy process. Culturing TB in a laboratory can take up to 42 days because TB is a slow growing organism. This is problematic for treatment and care because it is easy to lose people from the health care system during this time.

Culturing is also difficult in situations where resources are stretched. This means it can’t be scaled up and implemented in a community setting.

Finally, there’s the molecular diagnostics test. One such test is the GeneXpert which is being rolled out in South Africa. But its challenge is that it’s expensive and it can’t tell the difference between living and dead organisms.

Invisible ink

Our study focused on ways to improve the sputum smear test because it can be scaled up and implemented in communities.

To improve it, we decided to target a specific part of the TB bacteria – its cell wall. This protects the bacteria from the immune system in the body.

TB bacteria are rod shaped. Similarly to a capsule, the bacterial cell wall forms a protective coat that covers the bacteria. It is incredibly complex. It is thick and has many layers and is the reason why TB treatment takes a long time to take effect: drugs need to penetrate the wall.

But the defence wall in fact delivered the solution we’ve pioneered. It is built with mycolic acids, which is made of a chemical molecule (trehalose) unique to the TB bacteria family. As part of our study, the chemical molecule was fused with another chemical (a fluorophore) to create a stain that’s naturally fluorescent and changes colour (known as solvatochromic). The combination is called DMN-trehalose.

The DMN-trehalose is the brainchild of Dr Carolyn Bertozzi at Stanford University in the US whose lab conceived the idea and generated DMN-trehalose before bringing it to South Africa for tests in clinical samples.

The beauty of DMN-trehalose is that it colourless when it’s outside a TB bacteria. But as soon as it is in the presence of TB-infected sputum, TB bacteria immediately internalise it. Once the DMN-trehalose is inside the bacterial cell, it gets built into the cell wall and lights up the organism.

The advantage of our method is that it promises to reduce the processing time and complexity of the smear test. Another advantage is that it is very specific to TB because trehalose is only found in the TB bacteria family.

Lastly, the DMN-trehalose will only stain living bacteria, meaning it’s possible to tell whether treatment is working or not.

Next steps

Now that our study has shown proof of principle, it’s being tested in a pilot study at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

The pilot will take one year and will look at both the sputum smears and oral swabs to assess how well DMN-trehalose works. It will assess sputum samples from people before treatment to establish if accurate diagnosis is possible, and after completing treatment to see if the regimes worked.

The pilot will help us compare it to the current staining method in sputum smear tests. If it produces similar results, the new test could become the preferred method because it requires less processing.

The ConversationEffective, cheap and scalable diagnostics are urgently required for TB. For this, the new DMN-trehalose stain has great promise. It’s also an excellent research tool to help understand TB transmission and how TB bacteria remodels their cell walls during TB disease.

Bavesh Kana, Head of the Centre of Excellence for Biomedical TB Research, University of the Witwatersrand. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Connecting the dots between the hike in South Africa’s VAT and inflation

- Jannie Rossouw

South Africa is bracing itself for the first increase in Value Added Tax (VAT) in many years.

The hike is part of the government’s efforts to contain a budget deficit. VAT is set to increase by one percentage point – effectively a 7.14% increase – from 14% to 15% on April 1st.

VAT is an indirect tax that is levied on goods and services traded in an economy. Governments sometimes zero rate basic items to reduce their prices. The current list in South Africa includes bread, maizemeal and rice. This is done to support the poor and protect them against higher prices.

The VAT increase has been criticised in some quarters on the basis that it affects poor people disproportionately. But over and beyond that argument, the biggest challenge is that any increase in indirect taxes affects the price of goods and services. This in turn affects a country’s rate of inflation.

The fallout of the VAT increase is particularly important given that South Africa’s Reserve Bank manages inflation by sticking to an inflation target band of 3% to 6%. The Reserve Bank increases interest rates when inflation exceeds – or looks as though it might exceed – 6% over a period of time. The corollary is that it drops rates when inflation stays below the upper level for an extended period of time, or approaches or drops below 3%.

The mechanism has worked well in the recent past. Prior to adopting it, South Africa went through periods of rampant inflation in the 1970s and 1980s. For example, inflation peaked around 20% per year in 1986.

Inflation above 10% per annum – as was the case in the 1970s and 1980s – impoverishes savers and pensioners which is why care should be taken to avoid it happening. Inflation targeting is designed precisely to do this.

There is no doubt that the rise in the VAT rate will affect the rate of inflation. The problem is that the South African Reserve Bank hasn’t made any firm policy statements on the subject. It should have because it has a duty to prepare South Africans for what its next steps will be. With the expected acceleration in inflation due to the increase in VAT, an interest rate increase might indeed be necessary if inflation increases sharply, thus retaining it within the inflation target band.

The inflation rate with and without the VAT increase

The rate of inflation over one year to February 2018 (compared to February 2017) stood at 4%, which is at the lower end of the inflation target range. This is the lowest level recorded since January 2016. Under normal circumstances, an inflation rate at this level would raise the question of whether there was scope for the central bank to ease monetary policy by dropping interest rates.

But these are not normal circumstances given the VAT increase. If the VAT increase of 1 percentage point results in a commensurate increase in the inflation rate, the result will be an inflation rate of 5% – possibly with an increasing trend. At this rate it will be approaching the upper limit of the inflation target, thus raising questions about a possible interest rate hike.

What this means is that decisions about interest rates over the next year will depend on how the VAT increase is treated in the measurement of inflation for monetary policy purposes. The South African Reserve Bank should communicate clearly on the issue in its next monetary policy statement next week.

Without clarity, businesses and the general public won’t be in a position to plan for the impact of possible interest rate movements. Clarification is necessary to bring more planning certainty.

Impact of the VAT increase

Any assumption about the inflationary pressure of the VAT increase is difficult to estimate. This is because the full impact will be affected by what businesses do.

They have a number of options, all of which will have a different impact on prices.

  • They could pass on the full 1 percentage point increase, which would affect prices on all goods except those on the exemption list.

  • They could pass on only some of the increase, which would mean that the impact on inflation is less.

  • Or they could use the hike in VAT to build in even higher prices increases. This would push inflation up even further.

Central bank responses to VAT increases

Conditions differ between countries and policy responses, but central banks in other countries have looked at the impact of VAT increases on inflation. The available evidence suggests they’ve factored in higher inflation as a result.

South Africa needs an explanation from its central bank on how it’s going to handle the situation.

The ConversationIn my view the most appropriate approach would be for the central bank to ignore any inflationary impact of the rise in VAT. For one year the inflation target specification of 3% - 6% should exclude the VAT increase to serve the best interests of all South Africans.

Jannie Rossouw, Head of School of Economic & Business Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A Marxist approach appropriate for the climate crisis and the 21st Century

- Vishwas Satgar

The "Climate Crisis" highlights the importance of advancing a deep and just transition that decarbonises society.

Climate change is the most serious challenge the human species faces. Despite numerous warnings – scientific studies, UN declarations, books, movies, progressive media reporting – global leadership has failed humanity.

But how do humans survive the climate crisis?

The climate crisis should be treated as an emergency, demanding transformative politics that gets to the root causes through democratic systemic reforms. These would include remaking how people produce, consume, finance and organise social life.

A civilisation constantly undermining the conditions that sustain life has to be transformed urgently.

Despite the science and global consensus on the climate crisis, humans have continued emitting and intensively using fossil fuels. As a result the world is recording the hottest years on the planet. A heated planet, as a result of human action, unhinges all certainties and places everything in jeopardy. It challenges fixation with growth economics, “catch up” development and every conception of modern progress.

Most fundamentally, it prompts the question, has globalised capitalism lost its progressiveness? Is today’s fossil fuel driven, hi-tech, scientific, financialised and post-Fordist industrial world leading humanity down a path of destruction?

A new book I’ve edited, The Climate Crisis- South African and Global Democratic Eco-Socialist Alternatives, draws from the analysis, concepts and systemic alternatives emerging at the frontiers of climate justice politics. This includes alternatives championed by global social movements such as La Via Campesina, the largest peasant movement in the world, progressive Southern intellectuals and movements within Bolivia, Ecuador and Africa.

Challenging Marxism to meet the challenge

As in previous volumes in the Democratic Marxism series, this one brings together contributions that are thinking with – and learning from – grassroots movements. Many of the contributors are engaged activist scholars, grassroots activists and movement leaders.

This volume also places Marxism in dialogue with contemporary anti-capitalism in a way that draws on its ideological and movement potentials. Marxism in the 20th century as a ruling ideology, mostly as Marxism-Leninism, has pursued policies that have been ruinous to the environment. These have included championing growth at all costs, monopoly one party state control and catch-up industrialisation with capitalist countries.

In this volume nature is placed at the centre of how Marxism understands capitalism, history and alternatives. It confronts the intersections of climate change, patriarchy and racism inherent to capitalism. Marxism is challenged to think and act democratically in the 21st century. It’s tested as an intellectual resource to serve as the basis for a new future.

This is different from socialisms in the 20th century. These where authoritarian (controlled by elites), anti-nature and undermined the power of workers, peasants and progressive social forces. This volume affirms the renewal of socialism in the 21st century in dialogue with Marxism, ecological thought and democratic alternatives emerging from below.

A heating planet

In 1988, NASA scientist James Hansen drew attention to the heating of the earth’s temperature, otherwise known as climate change. Yet over the past two decades the US refused to adopt the Kyoto Protocol. This didn’t go far enough but nevertheless locked in common but differentiated responsibilities for industrial countries to cut emissions. Instead, Washington has worked systematically to scuttle the Kyoto Protocol.

In 2006, Hansen cautioned that the world has a decade to change the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions or face irreversible changes which would bring disastrous consequences.

Since this plea was made, another decade has been lost including through the ineffectual “Paris Climate Agreement” championed by the US President Barack Obama but undermined by incumbent Donald Trump. Today geologists and climate scientists are talking about a dangerous new world: the Anthropocene. It’s a world in which humans have changed planetary conditions including climate, breaking a 11 700 year pattern of relatively stable climate known as the Holocene.

The realities of climate driven world

For many the climate crisis is a complex scientific problem. At one level it is. And is very different from daily or seasonal variability in weather. The science of climate change has confirmed, with the measurement of greenhouse gases that human induced climate change is happening.

In 2015, the halfway mark towards catastrophic climate change was broken. This was confirmed by the World Meteorological Organisation which broadcast to the world that planetary temperatures have reached a 1 degree Celsius increase higher than the period prior to the industrial revolution.

The world is moving rapidly closer to a 2°C increase in planetary temperature. With this shift, extreme weather events such as droughts, heatwaves, drier conditions enabling fires and floods are becoming more commonplace. Sea levels are also rising, placing many low-lying communities, populous coastal cities and island states in jeopardy.

Climate change on this scale is not expected to unfold in a linear way. Instead, it potentially can happen abruptly or through feedback loops further accelerating runaway climate change. Examples of this include methane release from the Arctic ice sheet, carbon saturation in the oceans and the destruction of rain forests which all feed into the climate change crisis. As the world fails to address the climate crisis, it becomes more complex and more costly.

In response, the Climate Crisis highlights the importance of advancing a deep and just transition that decarbonises society and provides a new basis for organising society to endure climate shocks.

The ConversationNew systems have to be developed through democratic systemic reforms. These would include the rights of nature, degrowth, climate jobs, socially owned renewable energy, a substantive basic income grant, integrated public transport, food sovereignty, solidarity economy and commons approaches to land, water and the cyber sphere.

Vishwas Satgar, Associate Professor, Department of International Relations, University of the Witwatersrand. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Ramaphosa has started the clean up job. But can he turn the state around?

- Roger Southall

South Africa’s new President is presently receiving numerous plaudits on how he’s handling the transition from the troubled Jacob Zuma presidency.

Zuma’s generals have been scattered, his underlings fleeing the battlefield. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, against whom Ramaphosa fought for the leadership and under whose wing Zuma thought he would be able to shelter had she won, has been brought into the cabinet and safely neutralised.

The ousting of Zuma has also had a dramatic impact on the major opposition parties. Both the Democratic Alliance (DA) and Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have been deprived of their strongest electoral attraction.

The DA is now in a state of major disarray, attempting to resolve its various internal squabbles. For the moment at least – it seems to be heading towards a bloody nose at the 2019 election.

The EFF has played the brief post-Zuma moment more skillfully, most notably by getting the ANC to back its motion in parliament, albeit with amendments, in favour of expropriation of land without compensation. But Ramaphosa has responded in kind by subtly extending an invitation to the EFF to rejoin the ANC, a ploy which will continually compel it to justify its continuing existence, especially if the ruling party continues to steal its policy clothes.

Meanwhile, Ramaphosa continues to bask in the admiration of whites and seems likely to bring disaffected elements of the black middle class back into the ANC. He has brought back hopes of better days for a previously despondent South Africa.

He is master of all the surveys, Mr Action and Mr Clean.

Yet the new president is no fool. He knows that his major challenge, after the depradations of the Zuma years, is to work towards making what he termed in his inauguration speech, a “capable state”. This revolves around addressing challenges of governance, the party as well as the economy.

Low hanging fruit

Ramaphosa has had little option but to first turn to addressing immediate problems within the state. The early steps have been relatively easy. The most straight forward task has been to shuffle the cabinet. By doing so he was able to expel or marginalise ministers known for their loyalty to Zuma or their incompetence, while bringing in replacements of known ability and integrity.

He has also moved swiftly to address crises at major parastatals, notably at the power utility Eskom and South African Airways to prevent them defaulting on their loans to banks and other creditors. With new boards now in place, emergency measures have been taken to prevent financial meltdown.

Likewise, Ramaphosa has given notice that he is determined to restore the South African Revenue Service to its former glory. Getting rid of the top brass, notwithstanding the resistance of Zuma’s point man, the commissioner Tom Moyane, should not be too difficult. But, as within the parastatals, it is the problem of what to do with Zuma cronies at lower levels of management that is likely to be more difficult and more time consuming.

Zuma cronies who have been embedded in state organisations for a long time will have set up procurement linkages that will need to be examined closely. This will provoke resistance, some of it overt, much of it covert, for whatever the cronyistic patterns of procurement, they will have been celebrated as black empowerment. Their disruption will be stigmatised as reactionary. Pravin Gordhan, the new minister of state owned enterprises, will probably have to get tough, and the fights could get nasty.

ANC politics

The other set of challenges which Ramaphosa faces have to do with his party, the ANC. His narrow victory at the party’s national conference was only secured because he did a deal with David Mabuza, then Premier of Mpumalanga, now promoted to deputy president.

Ramaphosa will, in time, find that this kind of backing was instrumental. Loyalty will come at a price, and Ramaphosa will have to play his cards carefully.

He may have to make alliances with a lot of party power holders he doesn’t like. This may include ceding control of certain provinces to party barons so that their patronage patterns are left intact.

This is a problem because, as Ramaphosa knows, some provincial governments, such as the Eastern Cape, are grossly inefficient. They are staffed by people who simply lack the capacity to do their jobs – but who have strong connections with local party bosses. Disrupting such networks will take determination and courage, and will meet politically costly pushback. Expect little to be done this side of an election.

The economy

Perhaps Ramaphosa’s most formidable challenge is how to kick start economic growth. He has been lauded as the man who, with experience in both the trade union movement and in business, can bring labour and capital together around a new consensus.

It’s a nice idea, and one boosted by Ramaphosa’s smooth talk of convening a summit around the economy. But if it is going to be more than just another talk shop, he is going to have to do an awful lot of arm twisting. Both sides are going to have make concessions.

South Africa’s major corporations have been sitting pretty for years. Despite the horrors of the Zuma years, the stock market has boomed. The country became a low investment, high profit economy, characterised by the power of huge cartels.

Ramaphosa has to convince them that they have to get out of the comfort zone, warning that if they don’t, levels of inequality and unemployment are such that South Africa may explode. Capitalism is going to hit big trouble if they don’t look beyond the short-term bottom line and commit to serious levels of investment, combining this with major commitments to labour-intensive employment and training.

The president is also going to have the difficult job of convincing the unions that they have a greater responsibility to address unemployment. To date their emphasis has been on securing higher wages for their members (that’s what unions do) and they have succeeded in getting the government to implement a minimum wage.

But these wins have come at a cost. For example, central bargaining has resulted in wage agreements with big firms that have imposed massive costs on small and medium sized businesses.

While no one wants a low wage economy, Ramaphosa would need to convince the unions that something has to give if problems like this are going to be addressed.

The ConversationRamaphosa’s easiest task will be to win the next election. But history will judge him on his ability to do something much bigger: rendering the South Africa state one that is not only capable, but genuinely developmental.

Roger Southall, Professor of Sociology, University of the Witwatersrand. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.