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19 May ’22 Wrap: R22m flag drives SA up the pole

Hi there 🙋🏽‍♀️ Winter is setting in across most parts of the country, and Eskom is keeping us in the dark. Luckily the government has a plan: a gigantic glow-in-the-dark flagpole. The resulting outrage has also warmed us right up. Also, in this week’s edition of The Wrap, we look at what it might take for both South Africa and the US to finally stand up to racism and white supremacy. Elsewhere, we bring you the lowdown on Sweden and Finland’s bid to join NATO, a big win for accountability journalism and Elon Musk’s attack of buyer’s remorse. 

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

🔊 There is no audio version of The Wrap this week.

🗞 For text, keep scrolling.

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1. Our take: It’s time for South Africa to face its racism problem head-on

Only those who insist on living with their heads in the sand would deny that South Africa still has a long way to go to adequately grapple with both its apartheid past and pervasive present-day racism. 

There was outrage this week after a video emerged of a white Stellenbosch University student, Theuns du Toit, urinating on a black student’s belongings. Babalo Ndwayana, a first-year Agricultural Business Management student, recorded Du Toit urinating on his laptop and study material in Ndwayana’s room in the university’s Huis Marais residence. 🤢

When asked why he was urinating on Ndwayana’s things, he allegedly said, “it’s a white boy thing”, which Ndwayana understood to mean “this is what we do to black boys”. 

Ndwayana has since opened a criminal case against Du Toit. The university has suspended Du Toit and says it is investigating the incident. Earlier today it was reported that the pair’s fathers would meet to discuss the matter. Rudi du Toit told News24: “There are definitely going to be talks … Call it reconciliation.” Ndwayana’s father, Mkuseli Kaduka, confirmed that the two men had spoken on the phone and agreed to meet face to face. But Weekend Argus journalist Velani Ludidi later tweeted a Facebook post purportedly shared by Kaduka in which he said while he had received a call from Rudi du Toit, “I do not have plans to meet with the Du Toits although they would love for that to happen. I’m very much committed to seeing this fight through to the end.” He added that he wanted his son’s dignity to be restored and called for the perpetrator to face “what’s due to them”. 

Theuns du Toit has been widely condemned, and a petition has been lodged to have him expelled from Stellenbosch University. It’s a shocking, brazing incident which echoes the 2008 scandal at the University of the Free State when two white students tricked black workers into eating food laced with urine. 

Some may argue that racism is somehow dying out as we move further away from the apartheid system why, then, would young university students be perpetrating these acts? Often when racist behaviour makes headlines, there are calls for “reconciliation” or for the perpetrators to be taught a gentle lesson. That places the burden on victims of racism to do the heavy lifting. It’s long past time for us to stop hoping that racists will somehow be coddled into submission. Maybe something good could emerge from Ndwayana’s demeaning experience and see the start of a real shift towards justice for victims of racism.

2. The big story: Buffalo shooting underscores the US’s white supremacy problem

Sometimes it feels too easy to be flippant about mass shootings in the US   they are a tragically common occurrence and, in a world full of horrible headlines, even the most empathetic person can become jaded. But we must not look away.

On May 14, Payton S Gendron became the latest in a string of white supremacist killers when he entered a Tops Friendly Markets store in the Kingsley neighbourhood of Buffalo, New York, and murdered ten people. Gendron, 18, was arrested soon after the slaughter, and it quickly emerged that 11 of his 13 victims were black; the other two were white. It’s since emerged that Gendron allegedly started planning the attack in January 2022 – and that he was on police’s radar as far back as June 2021. He underwent mental evaluation and counselling after expressing a desire to “murder and [commit] suicide” to one of his teachers. His threats were deemed not serious enough for further action, and he was released less than 24 hours after his evaluation. 

Gendron, who is white, also crafted a manifesto in which he stated that the attack was intended to “terrorize all non-white, non-christian people to leave the country”. He also blamed Jewish people and the elite for “promoting mass immigration” and claimed that black people killed white people at disproportionate rates. The statistics don’t support this assertion. All of these beliefs are related to what white extremists (and some right-wing US media groups like Fox News) call the “great replacement theory”. This is the idea that white people across the US and Europe are being “replaced” by immigrants and minorities. 

On Sunday, just a day after Gendron’s attack, another mass shooting left one person dead and five others wounded. The suspect, David Chou, targeted a church in Orange County, California frequented by members of the Taiwanese community. It’s reported that Chou, a Chinese immigrant, was motivated by hate for Taiwanese people.

Real action is needed to grapple with the toxic combination of racism, almost unfettered access to guns, the radicalisation of young (almost always white) men and journalists using their platforms to drive hatred. Gendron and Chou join a long list of mass shooters. How much longer must that list get before something changes? 

Briefs

3. Sweden and Finland compound Putin’s NATO headache

You’ve probably read that Sweden and Finland have applied to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). But what does that mean, and why will it be making Russian President Vladimir Putin   who usually abstains from alcohol reach for a vodka to steady his nerves?

It’s a historic move: the Nordic countries are known for their military neutrality. Now they want the protection offered by NATO membership. Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said: “Sweden needs formal security guarantees that come with membership in NATO.”

The organisation was founded in 1949 to protect Europe against Soviet attacks during the Cold War. Today it consists of 30 member states; 28 are European, and the other two are the US and Canada. NATO has come to represent a partnership between North America and Europe based on shared political and economic values. Putin is not a fan, to put it mildly. He and his officials have long complained about the alliance’s eastward expansion, arguing that it threatens Russian sovereignty. In fact, it’s a big part of why Russia invaded Ukraine, which also wants to join NATO. His aggression may see NATO get even closer – Finland shares a border, to the east, with Russia, and while Sweden doesn’t share a border with Russia, they share maritime boundaries.

Sweden and Finland aren’t shoo-ins to join NATO, though. All 30 member states must unanimously agree before new applicants are accepted, but Turkey is determined to oppose the countries’ inclusion. It accuses Sweden and Finland of “supporting terrorism”, a reference to Kurdish organisations that Ankara (Turkey’s seat of government) has designated as “terrorist groups”. These include the Kurdistan Workers Party and the Gulen movement, which Turkey claims were behind a 2016 coup attempt that left hundreds dead. Turkey claims that Sweden and Finland harboured people involved in that attempt. 

4. R22M flag drives South Africans up the pole 

Three cheers for Nathi Mthethwa. The Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture did more for social cohesion and nation-building this week than any of his colleagues have done in ages. How? By uniting South Africans in disbelieving rage with his announcement that R22 million would be spent on a 100-metre SA flag pole – oh, and it would glow in the dark because, Mthethwa told eNCA, “the education has to be continuous, both at day and at night”. Don’t worry, the minister didn’t rush into this important endeavour; R1.7 million was spent on “geotechnical studies” first. 

And, perhaps most importantly, the gigantic flag would bring tremendous economic benefits, he explained – to the steel industry.

There’s just one problem with the plan: South Africans hate it. Artists and other creatives were financially cut off at the knees by the Covid-19 pandemic and Mthethwa’s department has been condemned for not offering sustainable help. 😡

It’s no wonder, then, that creatives led the charge against Mthethwa on Twitter after news of the flag emerged. TV presenter Bonang Matheba’s criticism was the shortest and sharpest of all. She tweeted: “You’re useless and we all hate you @NathiMthethwa.” Yeowch. 

Mthethwa took notice. This morning his department issued a statement in which it said the “process related to the monumental flag” would be reviewed “in its totality”. It also emerged that his colleagues had backed Mthethwa’s plan. Minister in the Presidency Mondli Gungubele told News24 that Cabinet approved the flagpole in February as a project that would “bring South Africans together.

“It was not meant to tear us apart,” the minister told News24.

It’s woefully unusual for the government to listen when ordinary people, er, flag their concerns about how public money is spent, so we’re pleased that the backlash opened their ears for a change. 

5. Can SA weather forecasting station crisis?

The South African Weather Services (SAWS) don’t just keep us abreast of rainy days and sunny spells. The organisation predicts and issues warnings about severe weather events a role that’s more critical than ever as climate change takes hold. 

Climatic shifts are already bringing more wild weather: at the end of April, more than 400 people died and over 40,000 were displaced after floods devastated KZN and the Eastern Cape. In January, a heatwave hit large parts of the Western Cape. Most recently, on Tuesday, the suburb of Randfontein in Gauteng was smashed by a massive hailstorm that “look[ed] like snow” and imperiled commuters’ journeys. ⛈

That’s why a rapid and ongoing loss of functional weather stations is a serious cause for concern. Meteorologist Vanetia Phakula told Business Day that between three and four out of every 10 weather stations across SA are lost each year due to negligence. These stations allow SAWS staff to assess conditions over time so they can provide accurate short, medium and long-term forecasts. Its network consists of 243 automatic weather stations, 1,050 rainfall stations, 153 automatic rainfall stations, 23 sea surface temperature stations, and 47 weather buoys in the south Atlantic Ocean and south Indian Ocean, according to Business Day’s report.

Phakula was unable to provide a definitive figure for how many stations have become defunct in the last five years. She told the newspaper that a lack of funding underpinned the problem, describing it as a “political issue” but declined to discuss whether funds were being mismanaged.

Let’s hope the crisis is taken seriously: South Africans need strong weather services infrastructure now more than ever.

6. Dogged journalists score accountability win in Steinhoff scandal

Amid the almost daily reporting on alleged government corruption and maladministration, it’s easy to lose sight of the damage wrought by financial crimes in the private sector. Take the Steinhoff scandal. The retail holding company’s list of alleged crimes, rather coyly bundled under the phrase “accounting irregularities” (that’s “fraud” to we mere mortals), cost investors billions. Those investors included the Government Employees Pension Fund, which lost roughly R20 billion when Steinhoff’s share price collapsed, decimating pensioners’ savings. 

The victims deserve real justice, which is why we’re celebrating a big win for corporate transparency in the case. The AmaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism and Tiso Blackstar (now Arena Holdings), which owns the Financial Mail, emerged victorious in their court bid to gain access to a forensic report by accounting firm PwC about the mess at Steinhoff. The report was commissioned by Steinhoff, which sought to keep the findings private, citing “legal privilege”. AmaBhungane and Arena argued that the forensic report would allow journalists to report accurately and provide the public with the full picture. They won: the court gave Steinhoff 10 days to produce the report. 📰

We at explain are big fans of accountability and openness. Plus, more reporting on the facts might just nudge our National Prosecuting Authority into action; it’s been accused of dragging its feet in the matter. Former Steinhoff CEO and four other former company executives face various fraud charges in Germany but dololo action yet on the home front. Take a leaf out of journalists’ books, NPA, and get to work.

7. Manuel can’t COPE with Tabane’s allegations

Another podcast, another lawsuit: it may as well become a proverb. 

Former finance minister and ANC veteran Trevor Manuel has become the latest to take legal action because of statements made on a podcast. Manuel yesterday filed an urgent interdict in the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria against media personality JJ Tabane to stop him from claiming that Manuel was among those who helped form ANC breakaway party, the Congress of the People (Cope – remember them?). Tabane made the allegation on Hustlers Corner SA, a podcast hosted by Sbusiso Leope – you’ll know him as DJ Sbu. Leope is listed as the second respondent in Manuel’s application, News24 reported. Manuel, who was both finance minister and a member of the ANC’s national executive committee when Cope was founded in 2008, wants an apology and R100 000 in damages.  

In the affidavit accompanying his application, Manuel said that he had never been nor ever wished to be a member of Cope. The court bid is Manuel making good on his word: last week he gave Tabane 24 hours to retract the “falsehoods” from the podcast, which was also aired as a video on YouTube last month and said he would take legal action if this didn’t happen. It remains to be seen whether Tabane will fight back in court … Maybe he’ll double down and start his own podcast. 👀

8. Russia losing ground in Ukraine despite successful steel plant siege 

While high-level discussions about NATO membership dominate global headlines, the grim realities of war continue to play out daily in Ukraine. It’s been 85 days since the Russian invasion began; the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman Lyudmyla Denisova said this week that in that time, 3,752 civilians (229 of them children) have been killed and 4,062 injured, 424 children among them. 

Russia claimed a major victory yesterday after more than 950 Ukrainian fighters were sent to a prison camp in Russian territory after surrendering from a steel plant, the final stronghold in the key port city of Mariupol, which lies between Russia and Crimea, which it annexed in 2014.

It’s not all good news for Russia, though. Russian forces appear to be ceding many of their early gains in the northeastern region of Kharkiv; they’ve been pushed back to the border. Things look bad on the economic and PR front, too. McDonald’s has decided to shut down its franchises in Russia, one of the largest global brands to do so. And Ukraine’s 2022 Eurovision entry, Stefania (performed by the folk-rap group Kalush Orchestra), won the song contest. CNN reported that many in the audience waved Ukrainian flags, their goodwill and a combination of public and jury votes carrying the group to victory. We wonder whether Russian President Vladimir Putin was among those desperately voting for the other favourites, Spain and the UK?

 9. Twitter bots give Musk cold feet

Ah, buyer’s remorse. We’ve all been there, whether the object of our regret is an improbably high pair of heels or a massive TV that costs more than a year’s worth of lattes. But when you’re a billionaire, the stakes are a little higher and a lot more public just ask Elon Musk. The SA-born Tesla and SpaceX boss is having second thoughts about his $44 billion Twitter purchase. 

We told you last month about what some characterised as Musk’s “hostile takeover” of the social networking site. This week he announced (in a tweet, appropriately enough) that the deal was on hold: “Twitter deal temporarily on hold pending details supporting calculation that spam/fake accounts do indeed represent less than 5% of users.” In another tweet, he suggested that the actual number of fake users may be ten times as much as what the platform claims. 

Musk has also warned that this issue may drive him to pay less for Twitter; he hasn’t specified why but may believe that fewer real users means the platform is worth less. Some have argued that it’s just a convenient excuse to back out of a bad business decision that’s led to a $30 billion drop in his net worth. Shame.😑

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 taking a brief break and will return on Thursday 2 June.

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_ ✌🏽