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28 April ’22 Wrap: Musk courts controversy with Twitter purchase

How did you mark Freedom Day on Wednesday? The 28th anniversary of our first democratic election was a muted affair. Maybe that’s because we’re still reeling from the latest round of load shedding and the KZN floods. We break down the latest on those issues – and remind you of the strides our country takes each day, from our successes in the fight against HIV, to local companies doing amazing work with lab-grown meat. Oh, and does producing billionaires count as a victory for SA? If so, maybe we ought to be celebrating Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter this week … though the news has raised many eyebrows. Keep reading for more on that and the rest of the news you need to know, brought to you by Verashni Pillay and the explain.co.za team. 😄

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1. Our take: Eskom vs Government: A hot mess

The heated exchange between a parliamentary oversight body and Eskom board member Busisiwe Mavuso is more than just a war of words: it reveals a great deal about the broader issues within the governance of SA’s parastatals. 

Mavuso, who is also the respected CEO of Business Leadership SA, was treated like a naughty schoolgirl when she pushed back against questions by the committee that tried to lay all the blame for SA’s energy crisis at the current leadership’s door. 

Parliament’s finance watchdog, the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa), held a meeting with Eskom last Friday after assessing issues at the Medupi and Kusile power stations in light (ha!) of the latest round of load shedding. 

Mavuso told Scopa that the board and Eskom CEO André de Ruyter could not be the “fall guys” for the ANC-led government.            

“The reality of the matter is this is not our mess,” Mavuso was reported to have said. After a critical and annoyed response from Scopa chair Mkhuleko Hlengwa, Mavuso left the meeting. The public enterprises department then laid into her too, describing her conduct as “regrettable” and “unbecoming” for a board member, Business Day reported.

The moment made headlines, with most in Mavuso’s corner. Hlengwa, an IFP MP, has since apologised to Mavuso for handling the situation badly.

The larger issue is that state-owned enterprises like Eskom have long been subject to political interference and poor managerial appointments. A combination of state capture, failure to timeously build new generating capacity, delays in adopting renewable energy and decades of general government mismanagement and interference have all led to the current crisis. 

But the current management team must also account. What is going on with the maintenance we keep hearing about, and why aren’t we seeing results? As Business Day reports: “[De Ruyter] and the board bear responsibility for the fact that the risk has not diminished but increased. But it is also certainly true, as Mavuso said, that the ANC-led government does too.”

2. The big story: Musk’s Twitter purchase sparks free speech furore

It’s happened. South African-born tech billionaire, Elon Musk, has acquired Twitter for a whopping $44 billion. 

The deal, which many have described as a “hostile takeover”, was finalised on Monday, effectively turning Twitter into a private company and giving Musk full control over the social media platform that had 338.6 million monthly global users in 2021. That’s relatively small, but Twitter enjoys an outsize influence among global leaders.

So why has the Tesla and SpaceX CEO boss decided to purchase one of the least successful social media platforms and what can we expect to materialise from this move?

The tech mogul says he wants to restore principles of free speech to the platform. But “freedom of speech” is a bit of a misnomer. As The Atlantic points out, conservatives are hoping this will mean a platform on which conservative speech is favoured and liberal speech receives less space. Conservatives have opposed several recent developments on Twitter, such as a crackdown on misinformation, most notably regarding anti-vax messaging and misinformation about Covid-19. The platform’s decision to ban former US President Donald Trump after the January 6 riots in which his supporters stormed the congress has also angered conservatives. 

We think the censorship of harmful content and misinformation is a no-brainer, but many disagree: there’s been a right-wing exodus from the platform with many boycotting Twitter in favour of platforms that are “committed to free speech”, such as Gettr, Parler, and Donald Trump’s Truth Social. None of these new spaces has gained much traction. Could this hostile bid be a move to turn Twitter into the platform conservatives want?

Musk also has a shady track record of artificially inflating Tesla stock prices through his Twitter account, manipulating market reactions. In fact, Musk began acquiring Twitter shares on 31 January, but only announced his then-9.1% acquisition on 4 April, which led to its stock value experiencing its largest intraday surge since its IPO in 2013. This led to accusations of unethical practices.

It’s shoddy stuff from the Pretoria-born billionaire. Critics will watch his next move closely. 

Briefs

3. ANC Women’s League disbanded

The ANC’s top decision-making body between elective conferences met for two days this week and emerged having made some big decisions. The most significant development, which party spokesperson Pule Mabe confirmed to the SABC, is that the party’s recent step-aside rule has been amended to bar criminally charged members from standing for any leadership positions in the party or government. 

This is a big deal given recent events that saw people facing murder and corruption charges embarrassingly elected as key party officials in Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal. 

We can probably breathe a sigh of relief knowing that guys like Ace Magashule and  Bathablie Dlamini won’t return to taint SA’s governing structures, again.

Speaking of convicted perjurer Dlamini, It’s been in the works for over a month, but the ANC Women’s League (ANCWL), which she leads, has been disbanded. In recent years the league has come to be seen by many as a spent force – but its key role in dismantling apartheid shouldn’t be forgotten. Members of the league were active in the Defiance Campaign and the adoption of the Freedom Charter. Sadly the last few years have tarnished its history. Some of the issues at play include:

🔹Dlamini’s five-year term in office has long expired

🔹No national conference has been held over the past two years, reportedly due to the pandemic 

🔹An earlier ANCWL report showed that the structure had no functioning branches, regions or structures in most provinces, the Mail & Guardian reported

The ANCWL will be replaced by a yet-to-be-established National Task Team similar to the one that replaced the also now-defunct ANC Youth League. 

Members of the ANCWL have blamed its structural woes on dwindling financial support from the ANC. But that doesn’t excuse the league’s decision to back dodgy leaders like Dlamini. The party, meanwhile, will be hoping that these decisions impress voters ahead of the 2024 general elections. It needs to be seen to contain and cure its internal corruption epidemic – or risk losing its hold on power. Let’s see what voters think.

4. Netflix frets amid subscriber drop

Netflix investors are getting very worried. 

The streaming behemoth has seen its first drop in subscribers in a decade; instead of gaining 2.5 million new subscribers as planned in the first quarter of this year, it lost 200 000. 

A big part of that was thanks to the company’s withdrawal from Russia in response to the invasion of Ukraine and related sanctions. This saw a loss of 700,000 subscribers in the first quarter, The Conversation reported, but growth elsewhere meant the net loss was the 200 000 figure that made headlines. The real issue is that it’s nowhere near the growth the company had planned for. 

Of course, there’s also much greater competition than when Netflix first captured eyeballs en masse. 

Canadian publication Screenrant points out that while Netflix, which has been on a winning streak for a very long time, is losing relevance and popularity as other sites like HBO Max, Hulu and Amazon Prime enter the scene. As Screenrant puts it, “Netflix really doesn’t have much more room to grow.” 

Netflix has responded to the slow and sustained losses by revisiting its model. That could be bad news for subscribers, as it may include an increase in prices, the introduction of ads and a crackdown on password sharing between family and friends to prevent piracy issues – basically what DStv did to us. The content itself is also being called into question. The quality can be subpar compared to other platforms, and Netflix has also come under fire for pulling shows off the site if they don’t quickly gain traction in time, which sucks for those of us who enjoy unpopular shows. Netflix fans take heart: this likely won’t be the end of the platform. Its dynamics may shift, though, and we’ll be watching…with a box of popcorn. 🍿

5. PrEP: four little letters to fight HIV

Just two decades ago, contracting HIV in South Africa was effectively a death sentence. We’ve come a long way thanks to civil society groups that forced Thabo Mbeki’s denialist administration to provide life-saving treatment – and the scientists who have worked tirelessly to develop a range of treatments. UNAIDS estimates that the provision of antiretroviral treatment since 2004 has saved more than 1.3 million lives in South Africa. 

Now one of the world’s leading HIV researchers, South African Professor Linda-Gail Bekker, has called for health authorities to focus their efforts on providing PrEP so it becomes as readily available as “fast food”. Think of PrEP – pre-exposure prophylaxis – as the closest thing we have to an HIV vaccine. Taking this oral medication daily has proven highly effective at preventing HIV infection. It has commonly been used among high-risk groups like sex workers and injecting drug users. It has been especially useful, research shows, in preventing infection in girls aged between 15 and 19. 

Bekker, speaking during a Twitter Space hosted by health journalism experts Bhekisisa, says it’s time for PrEP to go mainstream: “We need fast PrEP, like fast food. PrEP should be available at many points, in many ways. PrEP is not a luxury in this country; our HIV burden makes it a top priority.”

The good news is that PrEP’s availability is slowly but steadily rising since it was first introduced in public facilities in 2016. A total of 450 606 public healthcare users in South Africa have been given HIV prevention pills, Bhekisisa reports. The treatment is another useful arrow in our HIV-fighting quiver – and an important way for people to take responsibility for their own and their partners’ health. 

6. Counting the costs of flood damage

The rains have eased up, for now, but the costs keep mounting after the floods in KwaZulu-Natal, parts of the Eastern Cape and the North West two weeks ago. The KZN government has put the estimated total cost of flood damage at approximately R17bn. Infrastructure took the biggest knock: Damages to Prasa’s rail networks, for example, will cost the government nearly R3bn after almost 300km of Prasa’s railways were damaged. 

The death toll has plateaued but it’s still serious – more than 430 lives were lost and thousands of people remain destitute after their homes were damaged or completely washed away. The floods were the worst natural disaster SA has seen in recent history.

Last week, we told you that many feared disaster-relief resources would be misappropriated. The president noted the backlash this week, saying it is a source of “great shame”. You think? During a joint sitting of the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces this week, Ramaphosa said that the flow of funds would be audited in real-time to guard against corruption. 

The most urgent issue now is to help communities that are without water and electricity. Tankers are reportedly on their way to desperate communities, but critics say it’s taking too long – a lack of water brings the risk of a further health crisis and keeps businesses in the affected regions from getting back on their feet.

7. SA’s dances the two-step around Russia and Ukraine

Last week was the first time President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky since the Eastern European country was invaded by Russia on 24 February. 

The conversation came after Ukrainian ambassador to SA Liubov Abravitova publicly complained about our government’s failure to engage with Ukraine since the start of the war, SA remains controversially neutral on the conflict; it has abstained from voting in three UN resolutions on the matter, cementing its reputation as a quiet supporter of Russia. Not that we’re getting anything worthwhile for this support. Professor William Gumede, who in 2013 wrote the book South Africa in Brics, pointed out this week that our fellow Brics nation, Brazil, negotiated with Russia to reduce the price of fertiliser in exchange for its support. China did the same for the price of oil, and India for oil and weapons. SA? Dololo. 

Our neutral stance is instead damaging our economy and reputation as a whole. Still, the government is doubling down: Presidential security adviser Sydney Mufamadi this week distanced himself from a White House transcript of his call with his US counterpart, Jake Sullivan. The note claimed that Mufamadi said there was a “need for an immediate end to Russia’s aggression”. Mufamadi said he agreed that cooperation was needed to move forward, but affirmed that South Africa remained neutral. As Gumede points out: “By now being silent in the face of Russia’s war on a sovereign country, Ukraine, SA has lost its self-worth, its dignity and ultimately its power.”

8. Cricket’s Smith cleared of racism charges

Way back in 1978 English rock band 10cc released “Dreadlock Holiday”, a song whose chorus has made it a favourite at cricket pitches around the world: “I don’t like cricket, I love it!” Fast forward to 2022 and SA cricket fans wish they could just focus on loving the game – but boardroom shenanigans, along with troubling tales of racism and favouritism, have detracted from on-field performances. This week Cricket South Africa’s (CSA) former Director of Cricket Graeme Smith was cleared by two independent arbitrators of charges of racial discrimination. The charges arose after the CSA’s tough and sometimes emotional Social Justice and Nation-building project hearings, during which local cricket legends like Makhaya Ntini alleged they’d been victims of racism at the hands of fellow players and administrators.

The project’s Ombudsman, Advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza, found that Smith “unfairly discriminated on the basis of race against Enoch Nkwe” when appointing Marc Boucher as Proteas men’s head coach in December 2019, Sports24 reported. After this finding, CSA charged former Proteas captain Smith, who chose not to reapply for the Director of Cricket role when his contract ended last month. 

The independent arbitrators cleared Smith of racism allegations linked to his appointment of Boucher, as well as finding that he was not racially prejudiced towards former teammate Thami Tsolekile when they played together. Boucher is not off the hook: he was also implicated in Ntsebeza’s report and has been charged with “gross misconduct” by CSA. 

Whatever happens in Boucher’s case, we hope the lessons of the past few years will see South African cricket take a firm stance against discrimination and ensure that its pitches are safe, happy spaces for all who want to play the sport.

9. A hunk of beef … but not from die plaas

Old Macdonald had a… lab? The Mzansi Meat Co, a Cape Town-based cultured meat company, has successfully created viable meat that smells and tastes like the real thing. (By the way, “cultured” doesn’t mean the meat is well-spoken and comes from old money – just that it was grown in a lab.)

After two years of research, the company has made enough cultured meat to make a meal. Technically, while the meat originates from the fat and muscle cells of a beef cow, it was grown completely in a lab in Woodstock, Cape Town. This is an environmental boon: lab-grown meat uses drastically less water and land than more traditional methods. It also decreases the amount of methane produced by a herd of cows. 

Co-founders Brett Thompson and Jay van der Walt started the company in 2019, hoping to help people eat more sustainably. Globally, many companies are working on similar products. 

While it could be a few years before cultured meat ends up on your plate, it is slowly becoming a reality. In 2020, Singapore made history by becoming the first country in the world to approve the sale of a cultured meat product set to be used in chicken nuggets. At $15 or R239.10 per meal, that’s a bit too rich for our tastes! But experts believe that with more players entering the cultured meat market, the costs per meal could drop.

This is great news considering that we have just celebrated Earth Day 2022. This year’s theme was Invest in Our Planet: it’s great to see a local company doing just that. 

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_ ✌🏽

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