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In fight against virus, South Africa expects a long wait

May 24, 2020

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — With her winning smile and outgoing nature, Fino Dlamini was a natural to succeed in South Africa’s booming tourism industry. Her bicycle tours of Soweto took visitors to historic sites, including the homes of Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and to restaurants where they could meet South Africans. The tourists and locals would quickly connect over shared interests in sports or TV shows, forming instant bonds that were “magic,” she said.

Business was good in January and February, and projections for the rest of 2020 were excellent. Then the coronavirus brought everything to an abrupt halt. Dlamini was confined to her small home under a strict lockdown, with few options for earning money.

Millions of other South Africans share in the same misfortune. The country with the continent’s most developed economy also has its highest number of confirmed infections — more than 22,000, representing 20% of Africa’s total. And because the disease may not hit its peak for four more months, leaders expect to spend an especially long time balancing the risks to public health with the economic activity essential to the national welfare.

“The risk of a massive increase in infections is now greater than ever,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa told the nation Sunday night even as he announced a further loosening of the lockdown starting June 1 to allow some 8 million more people to return to work.

While South Africa has not seen the explosion of virus infections that emerged in Europe, cases “have now started to rise sharply,” Ramaphosa warned, with one-third of cases recorded in the past week alone.

Health experts have suggested that a contributing factor in the lower number in cases is the country’s youthful population, with just 3% of people above the age of 60. Africa’s small elderly population may help explain why the disease is spreading relatively slowly across the continent.

South Africa is still in the early stages of the pandemic, leading health experts to predict the peak could come as late as August or September. A surge of cases in Cape Town suggests that city might reach its maximum near the end of June. The forecasts portend a lengthy wait to resume normal activity.

Other African countries appear to be on a similar trajectory. Forty-three of the continent’s 54 nations have imposed containment measures, including lockdowns, bans on public gatherings, school closures and curfews.

The lockdown that began March 27 in South Africa is increasing tensions in Soweto, said Dlamini, who closed her tourism business. “People are destitute and feeling desperate,” Dlamini said. “It’s heartbreaking and scary. I tell friends that we must get through this hard time, that a vaccine will be found and we can get back to business. … But right now, it’s hard.”

With 25 bicycles, a vehicle and a trailer sitting idle, Dlamini decided to move into something entirely new. She is now selling meat products from her car to Soweto residents. “Ribs, pork trotters, beef bones — these are all popular,” she said. “People are calling me for repeat orders, so business is looking good.”

Five weeks into the lockdown, South Africa began a gradual easing on May 1, allowing selected mines, factories and businesses to reopen with up to 30% of employees. Restaurants can serve takeaway meals, and people are permitted to walk outside for exercise from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m.

But the economy, already in recession, keeps plummeting. The unemployment rate was at a staggering 29% even before the virus hit, and the jobless rate could rise to 50%, according to the Chamber of Commerce. Lines of hungry South Africans stretch for miles at sites where the government or charities distribute food.

“Our people need to eat. They need to earn a living,” Ramaphosa said when launching a $26 billion recovery package, the largest in Africa. It includes increased payments to 16 million people already on welfare and monthly payments to the newly unemployed.

The economic downturn is expected to shrink Africa’s economies by more than 5%, according to the NKC African Economics research firm. Most punishing are the effects on the millions of Africans who rely upon daily trading to earn money to eat.

Ghana, in West Africa, was the first country to lift its restrictions, on April 20, in response to economic pressures. Ten days later, the country registered a spike in confirmed cases of COVID-19. South Africa is still a long way from full economic activity, and further easing will be determined by the spread of the disease and hospitalizations.

The country is “taking a science-based approach,” said Dr. Salim Abdool Karim, who leads the national coronavirus council. Cape Town and the surrounding Western Cape province are at the center of the outbreak, with 65% of the country’s total cases. South Africa has screened more than 8 million of its population of 57 million and is now testing more than 20,000 people per day. Tens of thousands of community health workers with experience in tracking contacts of tuberculosis patients are now doing the same for positive cases of COVID-19.

In preparation for more infections, South Africa has built field hospitals with an estimated 20,000 beds and has created areas where people living in crowded conditions can be quarantined if they test positive. However, the country is short of intensive care beds.

Amid the medical challenges, the imploding economy puts pressure on Ramaphosa to reopen more of the country. Other African economies face the same problem as they endure two simultaneous blows: the virus outbreak and a slump in demand for key exports to Europe and Asia.

With the majority of Africans eking out their living on a day-to-day basis, any restrictive measures are quickly felt and “risk civil disobedience if protracted,” said Benedict Craven, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s country risk manager for Africa.

In the effort to balance health and economic needs, “there is no way of successfully attending to the one issue without disregarding the other,” said Pieter du Preez, senior economist at NKC African Economics. He warned of an “economic quagmire,” including increased unemployment, widespread hunger and a humanitarian crisis.

South Africa is rated as one of the world’s most unequal countries, and the president has said in his evening addresses to the nation that his response to the pandemic aims to build a more equitable country.

Dlamini, the tour operator now selling meat, said she is inspired by Ramaphosa’s approach, which includes government deliveries of water to areas that did not have it and discussions about the possible installation of toilets in schools that offered only pit latrines.

“We are showing that we can doing something here in South Africa, that we can build a more equal society,” Dlamini said. “We must work for that!”

Bram Janssen in Johannesburg contributed.

South African cops storm Cape Town church to expel migrants

April 02, 2020

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — South African police wearing riot gear forced their way into a church in central Cape Town on Thursday to remove hundreds of foreign migrants who had been sheltering there for months.

The operation at the Central Methodist Church was aimed at ending a long standoff between the group of foreign nationals and city authorities. The migrants refused to leave the church and had previously demanded that South Africa relocate them to other countries, including the United States and Canada, because they had been victims of xenophobic threats in South Africa last year.

Local media reported that police officers broke down the front and rear doors of the church in the historic Greenmarket Square to remove the migrants. The migrants were led onto buses and driven away, reportedly to a temporary camp outside the city.

South Africa is in the midst of a 21-day lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic and people are only allowed to leave their homes to buy food, medical supplies and other essential items, or to perform essential work.

The migrants will have to remain at the temporary camp for at least the remaining two weeks of the lockdown. South African authorities have said they will verify the identities of the migrants and properly process those seeking asylum.

Police undertook a similar operation last month to remove migrants who had been camping in the square outside the church.

South Africa’s ruling ANC set to celebrate election victory

May 11, 2019

PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) — South Africa’s ruling African National Congress on Saturday was preparing to celebrate its win in national elections, with the formal announcement of final results coming later in the day.

With all votes counted, the ANC had 57.5%, the electoral commission said . While a win was never in doubt, it was the worst-ever showing at the polls for the party of the late Nelson Mandela which has ruled South Africa since the end of apartheid 25 years ago. The party won 62% of the vote in 2014.

Voter turnout was another low at 65%, reflecting the frustrations of many South Africans after corruption scandals around the ANC that led former president Jacob Zuma to resign last year under party pressure. Turnout was 74% in 2014.

Current President Cyril Ramaphosa, a Mandela protege, has vowed to clean up the rot and apologized to South Africans. But his new five-year term is threatened by Zuma allies within the ANC’s leadership, who could pressure the party to oust him from power.

Observers have said South Africa’s economy, the most developed in sub-Saharan Africa, would be further weakened if Ramaphosa is removed by his own party. He narrowly won the party leadership in late 2017, weeks before Zuma was pushed out.

Ramaphosa’s image as a leader willing to rid the government of graft helped the ANC’s showing in this election, political analyst Karima Brown said. “It’s a departure from a president who faced continuous allegations of corruption,” she said.

But ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule, seen as leading the party faction opposed to Ramaphosa, has said the victory could not be attributed to the president alone. Widespread disillusionment over the ANC and long-standing issues of high unemployment and poor delivery of basic services had been expected to give top opposition parties a boost in Wednesday’s election.

Top opposition party the liberal Democratic Alliance slipped in its share of votes, however, winning 20.7%, down from 22.2% in 2014. The populist Economic Freedom Fighters in just their second showing in parliamentary and presidential elections did gain ground, winning 10.7% of the vote, up from 6.3% five years ago.

The EFF won support notably among younger voters with its outspoken demands for a bigger share of South Africa’s wealth from the country’s white minority. It struck a chord in a country where unemployment is 27% and many in the black majority struggle to get by. The party also had promised to expropriate white-owned land without compensation and nationalize mines and banks.

The ANC barely retained control of the country’s economic hub of Gauteng province, which includes Johannesburg and the capital, Pretoria, with just over 50% of the vote. ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte said the party was now focused on constituting a credible government. “The task now is to roll up our sleeves and to sort these problems out,” she said.

In South Africa, the president and parliament are not elected directly. The number of votes won by each party determines how many representatives are sent to the national 400-seat legislature. The president of the country is the leader of the party that gets the most votes.

“I knew that the ANC would win the elections so my vote for them did not go waste,” said Karabo Kgole, a gas station attendant in Pretoria.

South Africa votes with corruption, jobs as big issues

May 08, 2019

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — South Africans voted Wednesday in presidential and parliamentary elections, with signs of a relatively low turnout and voters saying they were disillusioned by widespread corruption and unemployment.

Despite the demise of apartheid 25 years ago, South Africa remains divided by economic inequality . The African National Congress, the party of Nelson Mandela that has been in power since 1994, is likely to win a majority but it will face a difficult challenge to match the 62% of the vote it got five years ago.

The party has been tarnished by corruption scandals and a national unemployment rate of 27%. President Cyril Ramaphosa, who leads the ANC, has campaigned on promises to clean up his party, an acknowledgment of the problems that forced out his predecessor last year.

“Corruption got into the way,” Ramaphosa said after voting, saying graft has prevented his party from serving the people. Selina Molapo, a 38-year-old resident of Tembisa township in eastern Johannesburg, agreed with him, complaining the ANC has not delivered on its promise of jobs.

“In 2014, we voted for the ANC but our situation has not changed,” Molapo said. “I am voting for a different party.” Firebrand opposition leader Julius Malema voted in his home area of Polokwane in northern Limpopo province and said he expects a good turnout for his party, the populist, leftist Economic Freedom Fighters .

“If the people want to continue unemployed, if the people want to continue landless, then they can continue voting for the same party,” Malema said, referring to the ruling ANC. “But if you need change, the EFF is the way to go!”

Young voters make up about 20% of the electorate and largely support Malema, who broke from the ANC six years ago. However, registration of voters under 30 was relatively low. Mmusi Maimane, leader of the largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, was one of the first voters at the Dobsonville polling station in Soweto, Johannesburg’s largest black township.

“Soweto represents to me the home of the struggle against apartheid and it is where we are now struggling against corruption and for a new government,” Maimane said. Black support for his party is limited because it is generally perceived to be run by whites.

The ANC has vowed to embark on a program of seizing white-owned land without compensation, for which it needs a 67% majority to change South Africa’s constitution. In the most likely scenario, the ANC will need to form a coalition government with another party to get the votes needed. That is likely to be the EFF, which supports land seizures.

If the ANC’s share of the vote slips below 60%, Ramaphosa could be vulnerable and his party could oust him and choose a new leader. More than 40 smaller parties also are vying for power in the balloting.

Neither the president nor the parliament is elected directly. Voters cast ballots for a national party and the number of votes won by each party determines how many representatives are sent to the legislature. The president is the leader of the party that gets the most votes.

At the polling station in the overwhelmingly white, upscale Parkhurst suburb of Johannesburg, a lanky young man hustling as one of the city’s “car guards” — the ubiquitous youths who offer to keep an eye on a vehicle while the driver is away — paused to say he had given up on the ANC and was voting for the Democratic Alliance instead.

“They ate a lot of millions,” 26-year-old Anthony Molele said of the ANC’s many corruption scandals. At a lonely-looking table for the populist EFF, party agents and domestic workers Marie Lekgothoane and Sophie Tsoai watched the arrival of mostly white voters.

Lekgothoane described how she and her 13-year-old daughter must wake up at 5 a.m. daily to commute more than an hour by minibus to Parkhurst, where she works and once lived before being asked to move out.

“We struggle a lot,” Lekgothoane said, adding that she has put her faith in the EFF and its promise of change. “I like this party with all of my heart,” she said. “I like the way they talk.” When South Africa held its first all-race elections in 1994 after the end of the harsh apartheid system of racial discrimination, voters waited in long, snaking lines. Few such scenes were evident Wednesday, except in the poor Diepsloot township north of Johannesburg.

Voter apathy could be trouble for the ANC. Winston Rammoko, 41, did not vote because he said he did not believe it would be significant. “We all know that the ANC is going to win the elections so I do not think mine will make any difference,” said Rammoko, who sells tires in the eastern suburb of Kempton Park. “They have won since 1994 and it will happen again.”

Tracy van Tonder, 20, is one of the younger South Africans who did not register to vote. “By the time I got interested in voting, the deadline to vote had already passed,” she said while accompanying her older sister. Van Tonder is one of the nearly 6 million eligible voters under 30 who did not register.

Some 26 million people of South Africa’s population of 57 million are eligible to vote, and the day is a national holiday to encourage turnout. Most of the 22,900 polling stations opened at 7 a.m. and closed at 9 p.m. (0500 to 1900 GMT).

Preliminary results will be announced from the electoral commission in the capital, Pretoria. Final results are not expected for 48 hours.

Associated Press writer Cara Anna contributed.

Nigeria’s leader in South Africa after attacks on foreigners

October 03, 2019

PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) — South Africa’s president on Thursday said “early warning mechanisms” will be put in place to avoid the kind of deadly attacks on foreigners that angered many African countries and led to an extraordinary airlift of Nigerians, while Nigeria’s visiting leader again condemned such violence as “unacceptable.”

What originally was planned as a business meeting between Africa’s two largest economies turned into talks by Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on how to calm the unrest that has erupted regularly in South Africa in recent years.

South Africa has been making efforts to mend ties with Nigeria and others after its government faced criticism for not explicitly speaking out against xenophobia at first but instead framing the violence as crime. Ramaphosa on Thursday again stressed the need for immigrants to obey local laws but called the xenophobia “regrettable.”

More than 12 people were killed and more than 700 arrested after bands of South Africans in Johannesburg and the capital, Pretoria, launched attacks against foreign-owned shops and stalls, looting and burning the small businesses and attacking some shopkeepers.

Nigeria’s foreign minister called the attacks “sickening” and the government recalled its high commissioner to South Africa. South Africa temporarily closed its diplomatic missions in Nigeria, citing concerns over staff safety. In Nigeria’s megacity Lagos, operations of South African telecommunications giant MTN were targeted in retaliatory attacks.

South Africa’s president now says his government is “totally committed” against attacks on foreign nationals. He acknowledges frustration about the country’s high unemployment and sluggish economy but has told countrymen not to take it out on foreigners.

It was not immediately clear how the “early warning mechanisms” to avoid further unrest would work between South Africa and Nigeria. Buhari said police and intelligence forces in both countries should be alert to avoid further violence.

The periodic attacks against Nigerians and citizens of other African nations include accusations by South Africans that foreigners are peddling illegal drugs or taking jobs. The attacks on Nigerians led some in Nigeria to call for the closure of South African companies doing business in the West African powerhouse _ a move that would create instant pain for a bilateral relationship that saw more than $3.3 billion in trade in 2018.

“Relations between our two countries are very strong and we want to welcome more businesses from Nigeria to come here,” Ramaphosa said. He noted that Africa’s population should double to 2.5 billion people by 2050, calling the continent “the next great growth market.”

The violence against foreigners in South Africa is in sharp contrast to the hospitality that other African nations showed to black South Africans during their long fight against the harsh system of white minority rule known as apartheid, which ended in 1994.

“We will not forget how Nigeria spearheaded the call for political and economic sanctions against apartheid South Africa following the Sharpeville Massacre of 21 March 1960, which left many unarmed demonstrators dead,” Ramaphosa said Thursday evening. “Without Nigerian support, our freedom would have come at a much greater cost.”

South Africa leader in national speech looks toward election

February 07, 2019

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — South African President Cyril Ramaphosa in his State of the Nation address said Thursday the country had begun to recover from “a period of uncertainty and a loss of confidence and trust” under his scandal-ridden successor.

His speech to parliament comes three months before national elections that are seen by many as a referendum on his ruling African National Congress party. Ramaphosa, who came to power a year ago after former President Jacob Zuma was ousted by the ANC, has promised to revive South Africa’s flagging economy and tackle deep-seated corruption.

He said that in 2019 his government would focus on five key tasks: speeding up inclusive growth, improving the education system, improving the lives of poor South Africans, stepping up the fight against corruption and strengthening the state.

This year, the 25th year since the end of white minority rule, South Africa should reflect on “whether we have built a society in which all South Africans, equally and without exception, enjoy their inalienable rights to life, liberty and dignity,” he told lawmakers.

After he took office, South Africans experienced a rare wave of optimism, sometimes referred to as “Ramaphoria,” following an era of bruising national politics but many have once again grown weary of the nation’s rampant unemployment, crime and corruption.

The party has faced pressure over land reform as one way to right deep inequities that still exist a quarter-century after the end of apartheid. Ramaphosa in his speech said his government supported the constitutional review process now underway to “unambiguously set out provisions for expropriation of land without compensation” in order to quicken the pace of reform.

He said the state has already identified state-owned land that will be released to create housing in urban and semi-urban areas. The disillusionment among many South Africans with the ANC may be a crucial factor in the elections in May.

“We need to recognize that things are getting progressively worse for us, and we have to acknowledge that the reason they’re getting worse is the ANC,” Mmusi Maimane, leader of the Democratic Alliance, the main opposition party, said in his “alternate” State of the Nation address.

The left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters, a small but influential opposition party that has disrupted the speech in past years, threatened to interrupt the address again unless Ramaphosa addressed a political donation he received from a company embroiled in a corruption scandal.

South Africa rejects Saudi, UAE pressure to boycott Qatar

July 21, 2018

South Africa has rejected Saudi and UAE pressure to severe relations with Qatar, Al-Khaleej Online reported Pretoria’s envoy to Doha saying.

During a celebration to remember South African freedom icon Nelson Mandela in Doha on Wednesday, Faizel Moosa said that his country rejected such pressure “because it was against the values that Mandela fought for – not to interfere in the others’ internal affairs.”

“Qatari-South African relations are developing continuously,” Moosa said at the event. Commercial exchange between the two countries rose to 70 per cent after the siege imposed by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt in June last year, and there would be more mutual investments, he added.

A new station is being built in South Africa to allow for the delivery of Qatar gas, and businessmen from the small Gulf state are investing in South Africa.

He went on to hail Qatar’s role in Africa which has increased following the Emir of Qatar’s recent tour of the region.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20180721-south-africa-rejects-saudi-uae-pressure-to-boycott-qatar/.

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