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17 February ’22 Wrap: To Russia, with war

Hi there 🙋🏽‍♀️ In this week’s edition of The Wrap, we’re looking at the alarming conflict unfolding between Russia and Ukraine, and why everyone is so worried. Plus we look at the latest about our Chief Justice drama, and note the showy campaign by Tshwane to claw back money it’s owed by big players like luxury hotels and even government departments! Plus we unpack the larger social issues playing out in Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s increasingly ugly divorce. 

So, let’s dive into your weekly update of empowering and easy-to-understand news, brought to you by Verashni Pillay and the explain.co.za team. 😄

Format

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1. Our Take: The debt collector, Tshwane style

The City of Tshwane has embarked on an aggressive campaign against government departments, state-owned enterprises and businesses that collectively owe it billions in unpaid utilities. 

Residents get cut off for missing just a few payments. But the campaign has revealed that large organisations in the nation’s capital were allowed to rack up enormous debts. 

Tshwane, led over the past several years by a sometimes unstable DA-headed coalition government, says it has a debtors’ book of R17 billion and wants to collect at least R5 billion by the end of the year. 

Last week the city made headlines when it cut services at Tshwane’s luxury Sheraton Hotel, which owes a whopping R23 million. In a triumphant tweet, the city declared: “We mean business! Sheraton Hotel in the dark. Make arrangements to pay your account before you find yourself in the dark.”  

The city also went after Gautrain, which it says is R10 million in debt (the company denies this), as well as the landlords of the South African Police Service headquarters and those who rent a building to the South African Revenue Service.

Several parties have responded by going to court, but it’s worth noting that Tshwane mayor Randall Williams is an attorney with a Master of Laws degree, so his administration probably won’t back down easily. 

Previously, Williams said many businesses would simply bribe the contractors assigned to disconnect services like water and electricity, IOL reported, so they decided on a more “in your face approach”. 

Another DA-led coalition, the City of Johannesburg, has embarked on a similar campaign – albeit a tad less aggressively. Mayor Dr Mpho Phalatse said authorities won’t be naming and shaming those implicated, considering how tough the previous two years have been. The City of Johannesburg is owed over R40 billion; a large portion of the debtors are Gauteng government departments, setting up some interesting tension between the city and ANC-led province. 

Phalatse said that, after warning Premier David Makhura the City was planning to “switch you off”, payments have started trickling into its bank accounts. 

If cities continue with this new gung-ho approach they must take cognisance of the fact that incorrect utilities billing is a long-standing headache for residents in Joburg and elsewhere. Randall says Tshwane is now reading more than 85% of residents’ meters to avoid sending estimated bills.

Still, it’s a win for accountability in our books. It’s shameful that such large organisations were effectively coasting on public credit. If we have to pay, so should they. 

2. The big story: To Russia with war

What the heck is going on between Russia and Ukraine? Tensions have ratcheted up since Russia amassed 130 000 troops at the Ukrainian border late last year, sparking alarm over Europe’s bloodiest conflict in decades. The United States warned last week that an “invasion could begin at any time”.

Things seemed to simmer down on Tuesday when Russia said it planned “to partially pull back troops” but the US and UK said they hadn’t seen any such de-escalation. So we’re still on high alert. 

Some background: 

In 2014 Russia annexed (read: stole) Crimea from Ukraine, after Ukraine had ousted its pro-Russian president. The countries have since been at war. Now, Ukraine is moving towards joining key Western institutions such as the EU and NATO, a military alliance of more than 30 Western countries. Although membership is a long way off, if it ever does happen Ukraine’s power would be seriously bolstered, threatening Russia in the process. 

Russia has repeatedly said it has no intention of attacking Ukraine but those troops on the border suggest otherwise. Now Russian President Vladimir Putin, perhaps the arch-nemesis of the West, has threatened to unleash Russian troops should Ukraine join NATO. Just last week, Putin harrowingly said Ukraine joining NATO may lead to a nuclear war – casually adding that while he knows Russia may not win a world war, there would be major casualties. 😱 

Many Western governments have called on their citizens to leave Ukraine. The US and its NATO allies have 8500 combat-ready troops on alert and are sending 3000 extra soldiers to neighbouring countries such as Germany and Poland. Other plans by the West to avoid war include economic sanctions that would cripple Russia’s economy: the biggest blow would be cutting Russia’s access to the International Swift Payment System, which would bring all transactions to the country to a standstill.

As Vox puts it: “The conflict is about the future of Ukraine. But Ukraine is also a larger stage for Russia to try to reassert its influence in Europe and the world, and for Putin to cement his legacy. These are no small things for Putin, and he may decide that the only way to achieve them is to launch another incursion into Ukraine — an act that, at its most aggressive, could lead to tens of thousands of civilian deaths, a European refugee crisis, and a response from Western allies that includes tough sanctions affecting the global economy.”

Briefs

3. Oh, Zuma, go to trial already!

We’ve previously told you how former President Jacob Zuma has been angling to get the lead prosecutor on his arms deal case ousted by questioning his impartiality. It’s all part of Zuma’s exhausting “Stalingrad” tactic – using legal technicalities to delay his day in court. Well, he once again lost a special plea to have advocate Billy Downer removed from his trial, after trying to get leave to appeal the judge’s previous decision. That was in October 2021, when Judge Piet Koen dismissed Zuma’s request to have Downer removed from the case. 

Judge Koen affirmed his decision yesterday at the KwaZulu-Natal High Court, saying Zuma’s attempt to appeal was “frivolous”, “absurd” and “devoid of any prospects of success”. 🙄 Koen, along with much of the rest of SA, thinks it’ll just delay justice. Zuma’s foundation has naturally decried the judgment; it believes Downer, who has been on the long-delayed case for years, is biased. But justice is slowly winning. As Judge Koen said, Zuma can appeal this decision – he’ll just have to undergo the trial first. It’s set to start on 11 April. We’ll believe it when it happens!😆

4. Spotify on the spot

Accessing new music once involved glueing your fingers to the radio’s “record” button and hoping the DJ wouldn’t talk over the song. Or you could hang out at Musica, sharing sweaty headphones with other fans to memorise the lyrics of a new favourite song. These were fun but stressful times, so it’s no wonder we love streaming services – millions of songs and albums in your pocket. 🎵

But the shine is starting to wear off for streaming pioneer Spotify amid a very public row about free speech and misinformation. A brief recap: Spotify also hosts podcasts, among them The Joe Rogan Experience. It’s hosted by, you guessed it, Joe Rogan (you may recognise him as the host of the US Fear Factor). Scientists have accused Rogan of giving a platform to Covid misinformation. Legendary rocker Neil Young withdrew his music from Spotify late in January, calling the platform “the home of life-threatening Covid misinformation”. Folk icon Joni Mitchell said she would follow suit and many other artists hailed the pair, but have not done the same because of what the Los Angeles Times describes as “political hesitancies, music ownership complications and business incentives”. Boycotting Spotify is expensive: Young, the LA Times reports, said walking away from Spotify would cost him 60% of his streaming earnings.

There’s also the not-at-all small matter of Rogan’s language use. Grammy-winning songstress India.Arie shared clips of the podcaster using the n-word. Rogan has apologised for his repeated use of the racial slur and 113 episodes of his podcast were removed from Spotify (apparently those episodes either contain Covid misinformation or feature the slur). But Spotify says it will not remove Rogan entirely from the platform. CEO Daniel Ek wrote in a letter to Spotify staff: “We should have clear lines around content and take action when they are crossed, but cancelling voices is a slippery slope.”

The controversy has sparked a hashtag, #DeleteSpotify. One poll suggests that 19% of users have or will delete their accounts in protest. If you’re among them, Business Insider has put together a how-to guide. Whatsapp users, check the PDF for the link. 

5. Chief Justice news

What’s happening with the vacancy for our country’s top judge? After the disgraceful Judicial Service Commission (JSC) interviews we told you about previously, there has been some debate over whether the JSC overstepped the mark by recommending a candidate – Justice Mandisa Maya – as Chief Justice. President Cyril Ramaphosa confirmed as much, saying on Wednesday it was his prerogative to choose a Chief Justice after consulting the JSC. The confusion this time arose because Ramaphosa sent four candidates to be interviewed, rather than just one as is usually the case.

Ramaphosa said he was considering the matter and would make a decision soon. Meanwhile, former Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng continues to make headlines for the wrong reasons. We told you he was ordered to apologise for comments he made about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during a 2020 webinar. He FINALLY did so…sort of…when he issued a statement on 3 February in which he made it clear that he was only apologising because he was compelled to do so.  

And he’s still going strong with the controversial statements. A Monday night interview with him on eNCA’s Power to Truth with JJ Tabane got many talking. Mogeong was quizzed over his previous comments about Covid-19 vaccines and the devil. He said the debate around Covid-19 vaccines was being silenced in the media and complained of one-sided reportage on the issue. He further questioned why the media had not queried facts over Covid’s origins; vaccines; what had informed the establishment of the Disaster Management Act, and whether it aligned with the country’s Constitution.

Some of that is fair comment. But mostly, we just really want a Chief Justice we can respect, already! 

6. Prince Andrew reaches surprise settlement in sex abuse case

Prince Andrew’s ongoing legal battles over a sex abuse scandal have abruptly ended – with his mother’s purse far lighter and his reputation in tatters. 

On Tuesday, the second son of England’s Queen Elizabeth II reached an out-of-court settlement with a woman who accused him of sexual abuse. The settlement, for an undisclosed figure, means Prince Andrew avoids a trial in the US that would have been a disaster for the British royals. 

When a picture of Prince Andrew with his arm around 17-year-old Virginia Giuffre surfaced, all hell broke loose for the duke; he had to step back from his royal duties in 2019. Also in the picture was Ghislaine Maxwell, who was convicted in December on charges relating to recruiting victims for notorious sex offender Jeffery Epstein. Prince Andrew was close friends with Epstein, who was found dead in a Manhattan jail cell in 2019 while awaiting trial for sex trafficking and conspiracy. 

Giuffre, now 38, brought a case against the Royal last year. In January this year, a New York court ruled that the civil action against him could go ahead.

Giuffre alleges she was trafficked by Epstein and forced to perform sex acts with his friends, including the senior royal, who she said was aware she was underage in the US at the time.

In a widely ridiculed 2019 interview with BBC Newsnight, Prince Andrew said he didn’t recall meeting Giuffre and that an incident in which they had sex at Maxwell’s Belgravia home “didn’t happen”.

A statement from both sides’ lawyers said the Prince would pay an undisclosed sum to Giuffre and make a “substantial donation” to her charity in support of victims’ rights, the BBC reported. 

In the statement, Prince Andrew pledged to “demonstrate his regret for his association with Epstein by supporting the fight against the evils of sex trafficking, and by supporting its victims”.

The settlement is a remarkable about-turn: the disgraced royal had vowed to fight to clear his name in court, the Guardian reported. But it would have been a little too late –  a picture is worth a thousand words, after all. Most agree his reputation is wrecked and that he’ll have to avoid public life for a long time. 

7. Swipe right for a swindler

Your worst online dating stories won’t compare with those told by victims of The Tinder Swindler, the Netflix doccie everyone is talking about. It centres on an Israeli-born man, going under the name Simon Leviev, who used the popular dating app to con love-seeking women. He managed to steal around $10 million from his victims over the years. In the doccie, three of his victims opened up about how he would take women out on expensive and unforgettable dates, like on a private jet and trips around the world, and trick them into believing that his “enemies” were out to get him. He would then tell ALL his girlfriends (man, we hate players) that he could no longer use his credit card and would ask them to open an account for him under her name. He then took the money and ran. He moved around using several aliases and preying on various women until one cottoned onto what was happening and alerted authorities. He was arrested in 2019 and soon sentenced to 15 months in prison for fraud in Israel but was out again after five months. He still reportedly lives a luxurious life –  but at least he’s off Tinder, we guess? 

But this kind of love-draped scamming is not new. Last year eight Nigerian men were arrested in a joint operation between the FBI in the US, the Hawks in SA and others for scamming women out of an estimated R100 million since 2011.

The syndicate allegedly targeted widows and divorcees online; the women believed that they had found genuine relationships.

A Hawks spokesperson said: “Once they had ingratiated themselves with their victims, they allegedly concocted sob stories about why they needed money – taxes to release an inheritance, essential overseas travel, crippling debt, and so on – and then syphoned money from victims’ accounts to the amount of R100m.” 

Which all goes to say… stay safe on those online dating streets, friends! You can find some tips on how to avoid being conned here. (WhatsApp readers, check the PDF for the link). 

8. Turkey changes its name to Turkiye

Thinking of going on an international trip to beautiful Turkey? Then you might want to familiarise yourself with its new name: Turkiye (pronounced toor kee yeah), the Turkish word for the country. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan mooted the name change late last year and formalised a request to the UN recently, in a bid to reclaim Turkiye’s national heritage. Erdogan’s long rule has been marked by increasing authoritarianism, censorship and corruption allegations. Some commentators have taken the name change as a signal that Erdoğan’s government in Ankara is “no longer trying to appease Britain”. And apparently, the administration didn’t love that their country’s name was associated with a rather silly bird. 🦃

Countries, especially previously colonised nations, mostly change their names to take charge of how the world sees them, as TRTWorld reports; many countries choose to step away from an anglicised version of their names. Did you know that Iran was previously named Persia, because that was the name westerners mainly used? Before 2018, the Kingdom of eSwatini was known as Swaziland. King Mswati III said the change was to reclaim the country’s identity and break away from its colonial past but given his appalling human rights record, it seems like new names can sometimes be used as a distraction from leaders’ real failings. Still, referring to a country’s name in its own language sounds like a good idea to us… right, Mzanzi? 😜

9. Larger social issues play out in Kimye divorce

Rapper Kanye West, now legally known as Ye, has launched a series of increasingly vitriolic attacks on his ex, Kim Kardashian, raising concerns about his mental health and spotlighting the larger issue of harassment. 

West’s ongoing mental health challenges (he has bipolar disorder) contributed to the marital breakdown. He regularly exhibited signs of mania on social media in the lead up to the divorce, often aimed at Kardashian. 

Still, after Kardashian officially filed for divorce in February 2021, the two seemed fairly amicable and committed to co-parenting their four children. 

But things have rapidly gone downhill this month and West’s ongoing attacks on Kardashian have become more serious. He has accused her of preventing him from seeing their children, while publicly slamming her parenting decisions AND agitating for a reconciliation. Kardashian is currently dating “Saturday Night Live” cast member Pete Davidson, who West has verbally threatened. 

Kardashian publicly defended herself for the first time against his remarks earlier this month, saying: “From the beginning I have wanted nothing but a healthy and supportive co-parenting relationship because it is what is best for our children and it saddens me that Kanye continues to make it impossible every step of the way. I wish to handle all matters regarding our children privately and hopefully he can finally respond to the third attorney he has had in the last year to resolve any issues amicably.”

It’s easy to write this off as another piece of celebrity drama. But millions of people around the world have suffered harassment and worse at the hands of a former partner, and there are real fears both for Kardashian’s safety and West’s mental state. For both their sakes – and, crucially, for the sake of their kids – we hope the situation can be safely managed.

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

The Wrap is sponsored by explain’s agency division. We specialise in content marketing for purpose-driven organisations, often with a pan-African reach. Mail info@explain.co.za for a quote. 

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_Till next time, goodbye from the team_ ✌🏽