Can we put a stop to Patel’s meddling?

Minister Ebrahim Patel: Your boardroom is not safe from this man

By John Fraser

Of course there are excesses. Company executives can and do become obscenely rich with large salaries, generous pensions and other less-transparent perks like share options.

But that is the price we pay for a fairly free labour market, where merit is rewarded.

If someone can command a high salary because his or her talents are in high demand, then so be it. This applies to high-class hookers, film stars and footballers, so why should it not also work in the less-respectable corporate world?

Well, South Africa’s communist Minister of Trade, Industry and Competition Ebrahim Patel thinks that it shouldn’t. He said as much in his recent budget vote speech to Parliament, and in an earlier media briefing.

He wants South Africa’s company law to be amended to “tackle the injustice of excessive pay”.

Now, one can understand the minister’s frustration, because when shareholders vote through salaries which give the bosses a daily rate which is close to the annual amount we peasants earn – there seems to be too little debate on whether or not this is good for the company. Whether the CEO really needs so many zeros on his pay cheque.

If the shareholders won’t do enough to curb excess, Patel believes he must mount his charger in full white-knight garb and slay the dragons of boardroom greed.

He spoke of “a new Bill will that will be finalised within 60 days (which) will require disclosure of wage differentials in companies, stronger governance on excessive director pay, and enhanced transparency on ownership and financial records.”

He argued: “if we really are all in this together, then our patterns of ownership, power and control must be transformed.”

Lenin must be chuckling in his mausoleum, delighted that although he may be dead and unburied in Red Square, the idealistic claptrap of Karl Marx is flourishing in the depressing architectural blandness of Patel’s lair – the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition’s (DTIC) Sunnyside campus.

Patel strikes me as a hard-working, incorruptible, thoughtful and caring man, but I am not sure his economic stance is realistic.

A lot of people earn a lot of money. So what?

His boss, the President, is a billionaire. Would Cyril have welcomed more government interference while he was still in the private sector, building his fortune through the distribution of McDonald’s burgers and other gastronomic delights?

One would hope he will bring a dose of reality when this issue reaches the Cabinet.

While Patel’s vision of a fairer, more equal society looks good in theory, it takes little account of reality.

Greed may not be good, noble or admirable. But it makes the world go round.

It leads to excess, but also to success. The two go together.

Remove the motive for the very talented to exercise their talents and lead our big firms, and they will go elsewhere. They can. They are mobile and in demand.

You will be forced to replace the overpaid elite with under-performers. That is not good for an economy.

So maybe this minister and former activist for South Africa’s textile workers should stick to his knitting, by helping to create the most welcoming environment possible for investment and talent.

He will not do this by bashing the bosses.

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Can we Toque? Review: Japa Express Sushi Bar, Rivonia

A bit undercooked. Photo stolen from Michael Olivier

By John Fraser

I loved and hated Japan all those decades ago when I visited that remarkable country.

Riding the bullet train was exciting, but climbing up and down hills in Kyoto to visit all those temples in the summer heat and humidity made SAS training seem like a walk in the park.

But the food was remarkable. I remember visiting a Yakitori restaurant which had a wide choice of skewered stuff. Brilliant, lovely, memorable. Yum, yum, yum.

Then there was a hole-in-the-wall place where they transformed shards of meat on a griddle into something magical and lovely.

And who could forget knocking back wondrous Japanese whisky in those late-nite bars where Filipino musicians sang Beatles songs as well as the Beatles themselves. The drumming was better, too.

I hadn’t eaten much great Japanese food since my visit, but all of this changed when I stumbled across (into?) the Japa Express Suishi Bar, which hovers above Woolworths in Rivonia.

Don’t be put off by the name. You don’t have to eat sushi or sashimi or anything else which hasn’t been near an oven or a grill. The menu is biblical in length and variety.

I gravitated towards the dim sum/potstickers/dumplings – call them what you will.

They are so, so tasty. Moist, succulent, well-flavoured. Magnificent.

Then there are the Tempura prawns in feather-light batter, succulent and melt-in-the-mouth tender.

I have on different visits tried the hotpot which is great fun and the barbecue booth, where you cook your meat over a tabletop gas braai .

Friends with whom I have visited have opted for sushi and sashimi and have raved over it.

But there are so, so many other dishes to try. The roast pork, the oriental schnitzels, the miso soup.

The beer is ice-cold and served in chilled glasses, and they have a good wine list as well as a choice of high-octane spirits of the type which send ANC prohibition despots into fits of rage.

One Pretoria restaurant I used to like a lot is now on my black list because of what I regard as a sloppy and dangerous attitude to Covid-19. Staff and customers who sometimes wear masks and sometimes don’t. I am too old and fragile to risk infection, however delightful the food sometimes was.

No such fears about Japa. They squirt you and take your temperature on arrival; you must keep your mask on until the drinks arrive.

And – so, so impressively – the food is served on another table adjacent to where you are seated, to minimise contact between waitress and diner. It is hardly an inconvenience to fetch it to your own table once the waitress is well out of infection range.

It took a little thought to set up this system, but is not that hard to implement. We should have it everywhere.

If you are one of those weird eccentrics like me who remains terrified of the pandemic, I would really, really recommend this place. You eat well, and you can expect to live for quite a long while after you leave.

Brilliant food, great health and safety.

Oh, and the majority of customers when I go there are of an oriental appearance. An excellent sign. They know their food, and are voting with their feet, or chopsticks, or whatever…

I will be back. Again and again and again.

Rating:  I give it 5*

Key to the Ratings:

1*    Dog food is nicer

2*.  Cat food is nicer

3*.  Not bad if Woolworths is sold out of ready-meals.

4*.  I like it

5*.  I love it.  Not to be missed.

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Can we Toque? Why I shall no more go a-wanderin’ to the Wanderers.

No sign of the shocking bill to come

By John Fraser

I would need the tentacles of several Oscar-winning octopi (or octopuses, if you prefer) to count the number of enjoyable, cheap and cheerful beer and pub-grub lunches I have enjoyed in the bar at Jo’burg’s Wanderers Club.

However, I do not intend to go a-wanderin’ in there ever again after a recent, truly memorable meal. Memorable for many of the wrong reasons.

It was a Monday. Apparently they follow the teachings of Bob Geldof and don’t like Mondays. While we are told that Monday’s child is fair of face, but Wednesday’s child is full of woe, it seems that Wednesday had arrived two days early in this Jo’burg institution.

The website tells us that the newly-renovated Wanderers’ Chariots bar is one of Joburg’s top restaurants. It “is not just a place to watch sport, have a few drinks, or grab a bite to eat. It is a place for you and your friends to come together, have a laugh and shout and cheer for your favourite team.”

I won’t argue about the sport-watching, as there is no shortage of TV screens. The shortage is of decent, well-priced food.

They allow non-members like me into this club, and I was the first to arrive.

The renovations, I observed, seem to have involved removing the comfy sofas and stripping the place of any really comfortable chairs. I had preferred it comfortable and a bit shabby.

Seated near the entrance in what I hoped was an area with minimum risk of Covid, I was brought the menus. A reasonable choice, I thought, of reasonably-priced grub.

When I had been joined my my buddy Norman, who is as much a member as a fixture, I decided to order a club sandwich. I like club sandwiches, and I was, after all, in a club. And fancied a sandwich.

Then came the first blow. Having brought me a menu, the waiter proceeded to explain that I couldn’t order from it. It was Monday, where woe is the dominant theme, and the choice was minimal. Instead, he pointed us to a chalk board with a limited, but acceptable, choice of nosh.

“Why not have a curry,” I said to myself – and Norman, who was eavesdropping, copied my choice.

I asked whether the beef or the chicken curry was the better, and was advised to order beef, as most people ordered chicken. I am still not sure of the logic of this, but dead cow it was. What we were NOT told was that while the price was R120 for the chicken, it was a ridiculously inflated, exorbitant R165 for the beef curry. In a pub. Which clearly expected me to fully subsidise the cost of the recent renovations.

After an exceptionally long wait (in a nearly empty bar) the food eventually started to arrive – in relays.

The chariots were clearly in for repair, and someone must have nicked the trays, so one of us got a curry, then later some rice, then later the other curry was delivered…..it took a while.

What of the food? Well, the curries were served up in frying pans. Not plates. Not bowls. Fucking frying pans!

On a separate plate, each of us received a small mound of nice and half a roti bread.

I was initially disappointed by the side of the roti. And then I tasted it and disappointment was eclipsed by relief. It resembled a cardboard cutout more than it resembled an Indian-style bread. It had no date stamp, but I would have been surprised if it had been made that week. It was the worst thing since sliced bread.

I proceeded to drown the rice in the ample gravy which surrounded the chunks of beef. And it didn’t taste too bad.

My big problem was with the texture of the beef. I like a curry or a stew when the meat has begin to break down, to become soft and moist.

These cubes of beef were still so cubist that Picasso himself would have wanted to paint them.

I ate half of it, more to curb my hunger than to arouse my senses. Not impressed.

We each had draft Windhoek lagers, although my first beverage was a bottled lite beer. Either the draft lager had spent too long in the barrel, or the staff had failed to clean out the pipes properly. Either way, it tasted a bit flat, with not much more life than the parrot in that legendary Monty Python sketch.

Worse was to come. I asked for the bill. It arrived. I queried it.

Not having initially asked the cost of my meal – and the menu board was priceless in the wrong sense – I was told that we were, indeed, being charged R165 each for our curries. This place was cheap and cheerful no more.

Not being a member, I was unable to claim the members’ discount. I paid, and cried all the way to the car.

Don’t get me wrong. I have every sympathy for SA businesses which have suffered from the government’s illogical and vindictive shut-downs and booze bans.

However, if they are now able to trade, they should provide food which will delight their customers and make them come flocking back, having told all their friends and posted a pic of each and every course on social media. At least twice.

Sorry, Wanderers. You let yourselves down badly by serving over-priced, underwhelming food.

I won’t be returning.

Rating:  I give it 1*

Key to the Ratings:

1*    Dog food is nicer

2*.  Cat food is nicer

3*.  Not bad if Woolworths is sold out of ready-meals.

4*.  I like it

5*.  I love it.  Not to be missed.

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BOOK REVIEW: Chronicle of sober Rob Davies’s time among corrupt colleagues

Rob Davies has written about the rot that set in during the Zuma years.

 Business Day. 22 APRIL 2021 

By JOHN FRASER

It says a lot about SA and our economy that it is regarded as unremarkable that devout communists are appointed to important economic ministries.

However, former trade & industry minister Rob Davies takes it as read that he was up to the job when he joined the cabinet.

His memoir, Towards a New Deal, is a difficult read, densely written and sloppily edited, but it is an instructive, important and valuable record of an often-inadequate response to the industrial challenges SA has faced in the past few decades.

It is also useful in that I think he is the first former minister of his time to have broken cover, and to have written extensively about the damage done to this country by state capture. He was certainly at the centre of power as the cancer of corruption infested SA’s ANC government during the Zuma presidency.

Davies himself has impeccable struggle credentials, having spent years in exile in Mozambique, escaping with his life only due to the ineptitude of the apartheid hit squads.

He was active on his return in the transition to democracy in SA, and initially gives much detail about his early years of activism, his exile and return from exile — but the book gathers pace in the later chapters when he chronicles his move from parliament into government, first as a deputy minister, and then as trade & industry minister.

While Davies’s own integrity is unquestionable, one must ask whether he stayed on too long in government once he realised the grand scale of looting and corruption

Unlike another (earlier) white communist minister, Alec Erwin, Davies is a serious chap, and certainly he makes little effort to entertain readers. The one time I did detect a hint of humour was in his snide dismissal of the dress code of Julius Malema’s EFF brigade.

He writes: “It soon became apparent that the EFF was not going to play the conventional parliamentary game. Its MPs arrived at Parliament bedecked in red overalls and hard hats — representing something of a fancy dress outing for individuals better known for their penchant for luxury watches and designer clothing.”

There are very useful and worthwhile insights from Davies, who as a minister was rarely outgoing to the media about what was happening behind the scenes.

He reveals that he was furious at the way in which SA and its regional allies were treated in trade negotiations in Brussels by Eurocrat Peter Mandelson, whose bullying manner seems to have been a total disgrace. If you thought Mandelson was a nasty piece of work before reading this book, it will do nothing to change your mind.

Davies himself put this rather well, when he recalls how the eventual news of Mandelson’s replacement reached a gathering of African ministers and “many delegates broke out in an undiplomatic but heartfelt cheer”.

However, he does not direct his venom only at the Eurocrats; he is also scathing about the protectionist Americans, and even about the parasitic relationship (my words, not his) between SA and its partners in the SA  Customs Union (Sacu).ROB DAVIES: NAVIGATING A NEW DEAL FOR SA’S ECONOMIC RECOVERYIn his new book, former trade & industry minister Rob Davies debunks the mythical allure of neoliberal austerity and proposes a fresh way forwardLIFE1 week ago

He makes it clear that SA’s space for manoeuvre in trade negotiations was often constrained by the need to take Sacu concerns into account. And he chronicles futile attempts to reform the mechanism through which a hefty chunk of SA’s tariff receipts is distributed among the Sacu brethren, noting that it now seems that controversial reform efforts “are shelved”.

Davies has a strong desire to clamp down on booze, and is almost evangelical over this. Whether this is entirely based on logical analysis, or if there is some unmentioned reason in his personal life for such strong views, is not made clear.

He recalls his attempts to tighten those liquor regulations that fell under his influence as a minister. I find his arguments in favour of raising the legal age for drinking to 21 extreme and puzzling, but I do not call into doubt his sincerity or integrity on this issue.

His suggestion is that those younger than 21 should be deprived the joys of a booze-up because until this age, the prefrontal cortex of the brain is not fully developed and is especially vulnerable to the effects of alcohol.

By that age, though, I would just note that society does already allow our young adults to get married, to drive and to go off and be killed in wars. It seems Davies and I will continue to disagree on this issue. Just not over a pint.

On more weighty matters of state, Davies makes clear his distaste for the corruption that gripped SA under Jacob Zuma’s kleptocratic rule, and is unequivocal about Zuma’s culpability, but one does wonder whether he himself could and should have done more — and much earlier — to sound the alarm.

It may be that Davies’s years in exile during the struggle — alongside comrade Zuma — led to a degree of loyalty that made it less comfortable for him  (and others) to take a public stance against the harm being done to the SA economy, and the corruption of the president himself.Picture: SUPPLIED

While Davies’s own integrity is unquestionable, one must ask whether he stayed on too long in government once he realised the grand scale of looting and corruption.

Davies distances himself from the problem, to an extent, noting the many clean audits his own department received. He details some of the encounters he had with the vile Gupta brothers, always insisting that he resisted all requests to assist them. He did, however, share food with them as they tried in vain to win favour with him, and he attended the notorious Gupta wedding at Sun City.

He details his own strenuous efforts to stamp out dishonest practices, when these fell within his ambit, and he probably kept billions of rand from the clutches of the corrupt.

Though this book extensively analyses industrial policy, and there is no shortage of theory and analysis, one gets the feeling Davies is not particularly proud of his record in stemming the tide of deindustrialisation in SA.

He blames global factors such as recessions and the slowdown in commodity prices, but it is regretful that he was never given the clout to get enough done. He was the minister with primary responsibility for industry, but he does not seem to have enjoyed cabinet-wide, governmentwide, fervent commitment to supporting his work.

This trend has continued, I suspect, under his successor Ebrahim Patel, who took over an enlarged economic and industrial portfolio, but still sees the Treasury continuing to chip away at the department of trade, industry & competition’s (as it is now called) industrial support budget.

The book ends with some prescriptions for Davies’s “New Deal” — favouring infrastructure spend, and also with a strong emphasis on the importance of the development of the pan-African free trade area (AfCFTA), transforming Africa from a supplier of unprocessed communities, advancing along the path of beneficiation and industrialisation.

Davies’s memoir is a must-read for anyone interested in SA’s economy and postapartheid political evolution, but the density of the writing style makes it a daunting read.

Take this sentence near the very end: “It is imperative also that popular mobilisation embrace more of the heterodox perspectives on the structural characteristics of underdevelopment that ultimately constrain the ability to address real issues facing the people of the country.” Ouch!

Prof Rob Davies is perhaps too intellectual and too much of an academic to write an accessible book. This may not matter much, given the limited readership it will attract.

One is left wondering how much more effective he might actually have been as a minister if he had served more of his time under a president who put our country ahead of personal enrichment.

Sadly, we will never know.

• John Fraser is a former Business Day trade and industry editor.

Why the fire on Cape Town’s iconic Table Mountain was particularly devastating

A wildfire spread across the slopes of Table Mountain to the University of Cape Town. Photo by Brenton Geach/Gallo Images via Getty Images

By Alanna Rebelo and Karen Joan Esler

The devastating fire that ran its course across the side of Table Mountain in Cape Town this week has put the spotlight back on the management of an iconic range that’s home to some of the most biodiverse vegetation in the world. And what should – and could – have been done to reduce the risk of a catastrophe that destroyed priceless cultural heritage.

Table Mountain National Park is clothed in fynbos – a distinctive type of vegetation found only in South Africa – and is surrounded by the city of Cape Town.

Fynbos is a highly flammable shrubland, which has evolved over millennia to become dependent on fire for survival. It burns. Science tells us that we can expect most fynbos to burn on average every 12 to 15 years in natural conditions.

Therefore managing fynbos means managing fires.

Fire hazard is influenced by three factors: the weather, an ignition source and fuel loads.

The weather can affect fires by increasing spread through high wind speeds or resulting in dry vegetation after a period of warm weather. Ignition sources may be a result of lightning or arson.

Both weather and ignition sources are hard to control and prevent, and yet often receive the most media attention. But the one factor that is possible to manage, is fuel loads. Fuel loads in fynbos can be kept down through ecological burns and keeping the mountain clear of invasive alien trees.

The recent out-of-control wildfire on Table Mountain may be linked to several key issues: fire suppression, alien trees, constrained budgets and unsupportive policies, together creating a wicked problem. Climate change may also have played a role in the high temperatures and fierce winds around the time of the fire, though attribution studies will need to confirm this.

Fire suppression

Recent research has shown that urban expansion of Cape Town has created anthropogenic fire shadows which are changing the fire regime, often causing a decline in fire activity. For example, the fires that used to sweep the slopes of Newlands and Kirstenbosch from the flats below have been blocked by the suburbs of Newlands and Rondebosch, meaning that the fynbos on these slopes has not burnt in decades.

Scientists are calling this process a “hidden collapse”, that desperately requires management intervention. They also predicted two years ago that this would lead to extreme fires in ecosystems globally where there was no ecological restoration and where fuels were allowed to accumulate.

Further evidence of a decline in fire activity in Table Mountain Natonal Park is presented in a study on indigenous forests which showed that they had been expanding on Table Mountain due to fire suppression policies.

Invasion of alien trees

Invasion of alien trees also contributes to increased fuel loads, and therefore more dangerous fires. Fynbos is made up mainly of shrubs and therefore when alien trees invade or are planted in fynbos, they tower several meters above fynbos, carrying considerably more fuel. A change from fynbos to pines and gum trees can increase fuel loads from 4 to 20 tonnes per hectare.

One study found that the 2017 Knysna wildfire had a significantly higher severity in plantations of invasive alien trees and fynbos invaded by these trees, compared to areas with just fynbos.

Unfortunately, invasive alien plant species are proliferating faster than authorities can remove or manage them. This is also despite the efforts of Working for Water Teams working in the park, as well as over 20 volunteer groups working hard to clear invasive alien plants on the Cape Peninsula and beyond.

In an article in 2019, scientists warned of the areas of highest risk at the urban-fynbos fringe, and gave clear steps that could be taken to mitigate this risk. But these issues have been identified as early as 1995.

Could Cape Town have been better prepared to deal with this disaster?

Why is this a wicked problem?

Although we have the ecological knowledge to undertake prescribed burns and alien clearing, unsupportive policies, constrained budgets and a complex social setting make implementation challenging.

In the 1970s and 1980s, regular prescribed burns were practised in some parts of the park  with the dual goals of rejuvenating the fynbos, and reducing fuel loads (and hence risk). However this was halted at the end of the 1980s, and fire management shifted to fire suppression to protect plantations and residential developments.

The current National Veld and Forest Fire Act 101 of 1998 does not adequately cater for prescribed burning, as it only allows burning for the purposes of preparing firebreaks. This makes it extremely difficult to obtain permission to conduct fires that would maintain the fynbos, assist with the control of alien plants, and reduce fuel loads.

Another issue is the social resistance to prescribed ecological burns in Cape Town. The public have raised concerns around lack of communication, while the authorities past communications around prescribed and alien clearing has resulted in public efforts to block the planned management actions. This has resulted in a lack of trust between authorities and residents.

These challenges result in a management stalemate.

Recommendations

What should the priorities be in the short-term? Will funds for basic needs, such as recovering buildings and capacity, compete with disaster risk reduction needs, such as ecological restoration and clearing invasive alien trees?

Alien plant management needs to compete with all other budgetary pressures, which perpetuates a complex, wicked problem.

What can be done better going forward?

Firstly, the policy framework needs to be addressed. Although prescribed burns are dangerous and inconvenient, out-of-control wildfires are disastrous and could threaten many people’s lives.

Secondly, citizens of Cape Town need to be more supportive of prescribed ecological burns and alien clearing. The relationship with managing authorities also needs to be restored and trust rebuilt.

Thirdly, Cape Town needs to improve the management of its natural and cultural heritage. This should include both prescribed ecological burns, and keeping the mountain clear of alien trees.

Given the huge interest from the public in alien tree clearing, apparent from the many active volunteer hacking groups, there is a need to integrate efforts by the South African National Parks, the City of Cape Town, and landowners (such as the University of Cape Town) with those of the public to develop a more strategic, standardised approach to clearing invasive alien trees.

Alanna Rebelo is Postdoctoral researcher, Stellenbosch University and Karen Joan Esler is Professor of Conservation Ecology and Head of the Department of Conservation Ecology & Entomology at Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch University

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Why do we allow the state a monopoly over COVID-19 vaccination?

Only big brother can run a vaccine campaign?

By John Fraser

There can be no-one in South Africa who believes the state is doing a good job in vaccinating its citizens against the deadly COVID-19 virus. No-one.

Other countries are stumbling and bumbling as well. We have seen the rows over trade in vaccines between bitter divorcees UK and EU, and there have been fears about the side-effects of some vaccines – most notably the side-effect of blood clots.

However, South Africa just seems to be floundering. We bought a massive consignment of one type of vaccine, only to decide it was useless. So we sold it on to our African neighbours. Go figure?

Now we are told that the snail’s pace of vaccinating health workers will delay the next round of vaccinations until the middle of next month.

Reassuringly, the numbers becoming infected, and the numbers who are dying, appear to be far lower now than they have been.

But this pandemic is not going away, and we need to speed up the erection of the barricades.

If you need to do something fast and efficiently, it seems logical to those capable of logic, that you need all hands to the wheel.

The state has its strengths, though often these will be skilfully hidden. Surely, though, the private sector is also a potential partner.

It will come as no surprise that there are private companies that have approached the state, offering to procure and pay for vaccines for their workers – and in some cases for surrounding communities and those in their firm’s supply-chain as well – and to carry out the vaccinations.

The pros of such an approach? Lives will be saved and the state’s burden will be lowered, as it will not need to vaccinate anyone who has already been covered by such a programme.

Fewer infections, and a smaller burden for the state in spending on vaccines.

The pros are practical, but of course this approach has been polluted by ideology.

It cannot be disputed that some – though not all – of those who would benefit from a company’s own vaccination programme will already hold a privileged place in society.

It is also true that those who would fall outside the net of this type of programme would be at a comparative disadvantage, even though the more people who are protected against COVID-19, the lower the risk of infection for everyone.

So far, ideology has triumphed in South Africa, as one might have feared it would in a state which is still infested with leaders who have failed to fully disinfect themselves from the illogical communist ideology of the struggle years.

When it comes to populating coffins, it seems it is all for one and one for all, comrades.

No exceptions.

Take a step back and reflect on the consequences. The vaccination drive will be slower than it should be, with the state having put the brakes on private projects.

More people will fall ill, more will die, more families will lose a loved one, a bread-winner.

There is some encouraging movement from the private sector, with companies like some health insurers pledging to fast-track the vaccination of their own members, once government gives the green light.

However, the green light switch still remains in the hands of a bunch of politicians whose own judgement, ability and track record is questionable, to say the least.

How will history judge us?

I suspect that history will be a bit taken aback that instead of saving all possible lives by all possible means, the government has condemned many citizens to a painful and terrifying death because of ideological idiocy.

Do we South Africans really want to be remembered only for having a sinister variant of the virus named after us?

Surely not.

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Offshore gas finds offered major promise for Mozambique: what went wrong

People displaced by the atacks on the town of Palma, northern Mozambique, flee to safety with meagre possessions. Alfredo Zuniga / AFP via Getty Images

Theo Neethling, University of the Free State

Recent events in Palma, a town in the volatile Cabo Delgado province in the north of Mozambique, have taken bloodshed in the region to new levels. Dozens of people were killed when hundreds of Islamist militants stormed the town on Wednesday, 25 March. They targeted shops, banks and a military barracks.

The attack has been devastating for the people living in the area – as well as the country. The escalating violence has already left at least a thousand dead and displaced hundreds of thousands more.

The conflict has put a temporary lid on plans that have been in the making for more than a decade since rich liquefied natural gas (LNG) deposits were discovered in the Rovuma Basin, just off the coast of Cabo Delgado. Western majors like Total, Exxon Mobil, Chevron and BP entered the Mozambique LNG industry as well as Japan’s Mitsui, Malaysia’s Petronas and China’s CNPC.

The gas projects are estimated to be worth US$60 billion in total. Some observers recently predicted that Mozambique could become one of the top ten LNG producers in the world.

The development of the projects had led to the area becoming a hive of economic activity.

The plan was for Palma to become a LNG manufacturing hub where hundreds of skilled workers would be located. And, more broadly, the hope was that it would drive the rapid advancement of a country that ranks close to the bottom of the United Nations Human Development Index. More than 70% of the population have been classified as “multidimensionally poor” by the United Nations Development Programme.

The LNG projects in the northern Cabo Delgado area represented a silver lining of hope. Since 2012 the major multinational energy companies have spent billions of dollars on developing the offshore gas sites. Today, offshore exploration in the Cabo Delgado area includes Africa’s three largest LNG projects. These are the Mozambique LNG Project (involving Total and previously Anadarko) worth $20 billion; the Coral FLNG Project (involving Eni and Exxon Mobil) worth $4.7 billion; and the Rovuma LNG Project (involving Exxon Mobil, Eni and CNPC) worth $30 billion.

Production was scheduled to start in 2024 but intensifying attacks near the gas site on the Afungi peninsula are now posing serious challenges to the production time lines.

There have been no material benefits for the people of Cabo Delgado thus far. Moreover, many local people feel deeply aggrieved because many were evicted and had to relocate soon after the discovery of gas in Cabo Delgado to make way for LNG infrastructure development.

History of instability

Cabo Delgado is Mozambique’s most northern province. Neglected over many years, the people who live there have been politically marginalised. And the area is underdeveloped.

Since independence in 1975 investment, and rising incomes, were largely confined to the capital Maputo in the south as well as the southern parts of the country.

In addition, the central government in Maputo has only had a fragile and precarious control over the territory and borders of the country. A 16-year civil war that involved clashes between the central government and Renamo, a militant organisation and political movement during the liberation struggle and now opposition party, claimed more than a million lives.

More recently, since 2017, the militant Islamic movement, Ansar al-Sunna, locally known as Al-Shabaab, has been active in Cabo Delgado. It now poses the biggest security threat in the country, rendering some of the northern parts almost ungovernable.

The militants took advantage of the Mozambican government’s failure to exercise control over the entire territory of the country.

Ansar al-Sunna reportedly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in April 2018. It was acknowledged as an affiliate of ISIS-Core in August 2019. In view of this, the US Department of State has designated Ansar al-Sunna Mozambique, which it refers to as ISIS-Mozambique, as a foreign terrorist organisation.

What makes this armed force so significant is that the movement has orchestrated a series of large scale and targeted attacks. In 2020 this led to the temporary capturing of the strategic port of Mocimboa da Praia in Cabo Delgado.

In addition, the turbulence caused by the militants’ attacks has displaced nearly 670,000 people within northern Mozambique. Obviously, foreign companies in the LNG industry with their considerable investments feel threatened, especially at the current stage where final investment decisions have to be taken.

In recent months the situation in Cabo Delgado has gone from bad to worse. In November 2020, dozens of people were reportedly beheaded by the militants. Now the bloodshed has spread to Palma.

Amid the development of an increasingly alarming human rights situation towards the end of last year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, appealed for urgent measures to protect civilians. She described the situation as “desperate” and one of “grave human rights abuses”. Bachelet also stated that more than 350,000 people had been displaced since 2018.

Growing risk

There is little doubt that Islamist insurgents are increasing the scale of their activities in Cabo Delgado. A lack of governance and a proper security response by both the Mozambican government and southern African leaders make this a case of high political risk for the LNG industry.

The escalation of the insurgency can potentially jeopardise the successful unlocking of Mozambique’s resource wealth. Until now, the main LNG installations and sites have not been targeted, but the attacks in Palma have brought the turbulence dangerously close to some of the installations.

The Mozambican armed forces are clearly stretched beyond the point where they can protect the local communities. A part of the solution lies in Southern African Development Community or at least South African military support to stabilise Cabo Delgado and restore law and order in the short term. Wider international support might even be necessary.

But this would require the Mozambican government to change its stance by allowing multinational foreign military forces on its soil.

At the same time, a long term solution should be pursued. This will require better governance of the northern areas and the local people in what has been called a forgotten province.

It is clear that Cabo Delgado is an area which the central government in Maputo is unable to control, govern effectively, or even influence. In short, weak state institutions – including weak armed forces – are key to the problems of Mozambique and specifically the turbulence in the northern parts.

Theo Neethling, Professor of Political Science, Department of Political Studies and Governance, University of the Free State

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Suez Canal container ship accident is a worst-case scenario for global trade

The container ship ran aground in the Suez Canal on March 23, blocking the passage of other ships and causing a traffic jam for cargo vessels. EPA-EFE/Media Suez Canal Head Office

Rory Hopcraft, University of Plymouth, Kevin Jones, University of Plymouth, Kimberly Tam, University of Plymouth

It’s estimated that 90% of the world’s trade is transported by sea. As consumers, we rarely give much thought to how the things we buy make their way across the planet and into our homes. That is, until an incident like the recent grounding of a huge container ship, the Ever Given, in the Suez Canal exposes the weaknesses in this global system.

High winds have been blamed for the container ship blocking the narrow strait, which serves as a trade artery that connects the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. But with shipping so heavily reliant on such narrow channels, the potential for these incidents is ever-present.

As researchers of maritime security, we often simulate incidents like the Ever Given grounding to understand the probable long and short-term consequences. In fact, the recent event is near identical to something we have been discussing for the last month, as it represents an almost worst-case scenario for the Suez Canal and for knock-on effects on global trade.

The Suez Canal is the gateway for the movement of goods between Europe and Asia, and it was responsible for the transit of over 19,000 ships in 2019, equating to nearly 1.25 billion tonnes of cargo. This is thought to represent around 13% of world trade so any blockage is likely to have a significant impact.

The Suez Canal Authority started expanding the strait in 2014 to raise its daily capacity from 49 vessels at present to 97 by 2023. This gives an indication of how many ships are likely to be affected by the current situation. There are reports that the incident has already halted the passage of ten crude tankers carrying 13 million barrels of oil, and that any ships rerouted will have 15 days added to their voyage.

The severity of the incident is because of the dimensions of the vessels using the canal. The Ever Given is 400 metres long, 59 metres at its widest point and 16 metres deep below the waterline. This makes it one of the largest container ships in the world, capable of carrying over 18,000 containers. Depending on the severity of the grounding, the salvage and re-floating of this type of ship is a complex operation, requiring specialist equipment and potentially a lot of time.

While the exact number of container ships of this size transiting the canal is unknown, container vessels account for almost a third of all canal traffic. Their depth and girth make for difficult navigation within the canal. When operating within such tight margins, ships of this size have to maintain a certain speed to keep their steering effective.

With the capacity to carry over 150,000 tonnes of cargo, these ships cannot stop suddenly. If something does go wrong, crews have very little time to react before the ship runs aground.

A large container vessel sailing the Suez Canal.
The Suez Canal was completed in 1869 – long before modern container ships existed. Mr_Karesuando/Shutterstock

This makes a blockage of this type almost inevitable, especially considering that the length of these ships far exceeds the width of the canal. But what makes this incident particularly disruptive was the location of the grounding. Since the canal was expanded, the Mediterranean end of the Canal now has two channels for ships to take, allowing seamless transiting even if one channel is blocked.

But, in its location at the Suez end of the Canal, the Ever Given was blocking the only channel for ships to pass through. As ships travel through the 193km of canal in convoys with tightly scheduled slots, vessels leading these groups can block the channel like this, creating a backlog of ships or even collisions. It’s unclear if the goods being delayed are time-sensitive (for example: medicine or food), but understanding what effects these incidents have on trade can help us preempt effective solutions.

Could it have been worse?

We’re also interested in what other factors can influence an event like this. One element is the time of year. Traditionally, in the build-up to Christmas, October and November are busy times for maritime trade. A disruption in the global supply chain during this period would have a far greater impact, and could coincide with difficult weather conditions which would exacerbate things, like visibility-reducing fog.

Another element is the unevenness of the canal’s banks. If the incident had occurred only a few kilometres down towards the seaport of Suez where the strait ends, the ship would have run aground on banks composed of rock, not sand. An impact here might have caused serious damage to the hull, making salvage operations harder.

While not identical to our team’s table-top scenario, the latest incident does highlight that as ships get larger and more complicated, their reliance on narrow shipping routes constructed in an earlier age looks increasingly risky. This blockage will have limited long-term implications, but incidents like it could be triggered maliciously, causing targeted or widespread impacts on global and local trade. We need to be more aware of these weaknesses as our world becomes more connected.

Rory Hopcraft, Industrial Researcher, University of Plymouth; Kevin Jones, Executive Dean, Faculty of Science and Engineering, University of Plymouth, and Kimberly Tam, Lecturer in Cyber Security, University of Plymouth

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Jamal Khashoggi: why the US is unlikely to deliver justice for the murdered journalist

Still no justice for Jamal Khashoggi. EPA-EFE/Tolga Bozoglu

Armida L. M. van Rij, King’s College London

When Saudi Arabian dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, had not expected the outcry that would follow. For perhaps the first time in recent history, Saudi critics and Saudi supporters were united in their condemnation of the extrajudicial killing.

The allegations – that Khashoggi, who had disappeared after entering the embassy on October 2, had been murdered and his body dismembered and disposed of by Saudi agents – sparked a diplomatic crisis in Istanbul, Riyadh and London, but not in Washington DC. The then US president, Donald Trump, continued to publicly support Saudi Arabia and Prince Mohammed, its de facto ruler. Two-and-a-half years later, the White House has a new occupant. With a CIA investigation into Khashoggi’s murder now declassified, will the US president, Joe Biden, shift the gear on US-Saudi relations?

What the headline of the CIA’s report into the murder of Jamal Khashoggi would be has been relatively clear all this time: Prince Mohammed approved an operation to “capture or kill” Khashoggi. And yet Trump was not interested in justice for the murdered journalist. Trump’s focus on pursuing a transactional relationship with the Gulf state, quantifiable in billions made from weapons deals and arms exports, formed the baseline for the US relationship with Saudi Arabia during his presidency.

Biden, however, so far appears interested in restoring the importance placed on values in international relations, and has been more reticent about engaging with Prince Mohammed directly during his first month in office. The White House has signalled that Biden is looking to rebalance the relationship with Saudi Arabia. It is a challenge many US presidents have grappled with before. Biden will supposedly seek to carefully balance cooperation with a long-standing US ally, while taking more of a stand than his predecessor did against Saudi Arabia’s excesses, such as its waging of war in Yemen, which has sparked the largest humanitarian crisis in the world.

So far, Biden has ended US support for Saudi offensive operations in Yemen. He has also put a temporary stop to arms exports to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, including precision-guided munitions, which have been used to target Yemeni civilians. This is significant, given that in the period 2015 to 2019 just under 75% of Saudi arms imports came from the US. Alongside the publication of the CIA report, secretary of state Antony Blinken announced a “Khashoggi ban”, which imposes visa restrictions on any individuals who have threatened dissidents overseas on behalf of a foreign government. The US has immediately used the ban to impose visa restrictions on 76 Saudi nationals.

Still friends?

Ultimately though, none of these measures directly target or affect Prince Mohammed, who the CIA points to as the person who approved Khashoggi’s murder. While the White House has tried to send signals to Saudi Arabia and may not favour Prince Mohammed, it is likely he will take over the throne from his father and rule the kingdom for decades to come. The Biden administration may dislike Prince Mohammed personally, but they will probably need to work with him if the US is to maintain a working relationship with Saudi Arabia.

The Biden administration is sending a strong signal that past erratic behaviour by the crown prince will no longer be tolerated. However, it is not clear what, exactly, any consequences in response to such behaviour would be and the extent to which Biden is willing to put the US-Saudi alliance on the line. It is also unclear whether the Biden administration will seek to target Prince Mohammed individually.

Saudi Arabia anticipated Biden’s position and has sought to sweeten the new administration by releasing Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul from prison and restoring diplomatic relations with Qatar. Having heard the promises Biden made while on the campaign trail, during which he called Saudi Arabia a “pariah state”, the timing of these is no coincidence.

The extent to which the US-Saudi relationship will indeed cool remains to be seen. Saudi Arabia is still considered a key US ally to hedge against Iranian influence in the Middle East. Iran has steadily increased its reach in the region through proxy organisations which operate in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Equally, the US may simply believe that they cannot afford to lose Saudi Arabia as an ally in the Middle East, particularly as the Gulf state is considered to be a key ally in counter-terrorism efforts.

So, while the Biden administration may seek to distance itself from the cosy relationship that Prince Mohammed enjoyed with the Trump family and reset the relationship in that regard, it is unlikely that it will cut all diplomatic and political ties with Saudi Arabia.

Where does this leave justice for Jamal Khashoggi? The CIA report does clarify where his body is. It is unlikely that Prince Mohammed will ever be tried by an independent judiciary for his role in the murder, or that he will be directly sanctioned by the US. Two-and-a-half years on, we are no closer to justice.

Armida L. M. van Rij, Research Associate in Security and Defence Policy at the Policy Institute at King’s, King’s College London

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Buying booze and fags is not a sin!

Heaven, or hell?

By John Fraser

There is normally a lot to annoy me in the budget. Taxes are not nice, whether they are income taxes on earnings, VAT on spending, or the whole range of fuel levies.

I resent, but understand, the taxing of tobacco products and booze.

What really gets to me is the very unfunny jollity with which such levies are so commonly referred to as ‘sin taxes’.

Tax me if you must, but how dare you judge my lifestyle?

I accept that the far-from-funny linking of these taxes to the punishment of sin seemed jolly funny to the sad and pathetic accountants in whose depressing lives such hilarity appeared to be side-splitting.

But while reckless drinking and smoking may sometimes be unwise, there is little direct reference to these habits in the 10 Commandments.

You may burn in hell for all eternity for coveting your neighbour’s wife, being unholy on the Sabbath, committing adultery or for stealing.

But having a fag? Smoking a cigar, having a beer, a glass of wine or a G&T?

Pull the other one, you sad, sad sods.

Christ himself approved so much of wine that he manufactured the stuff out of tap water, and wine forms the centrepiece of one of the Christian religion’s most profound and spiritual ceremonies.

OK. There are religions which do curse the drinker. But do we really want our fiscal nomenclature to be based on one interpretation of the teaching of a bearded prophet (aren’t they all?) whose depiction in a cartoon is enough to get the artist a death-threat?

These are not taxes on sin. They are taxes on pleasure. Our pockets are being picked – our mortal souls are not being levied as we prepare for the fires of Hell.

We are being forced to effectively pay more for – largely harmless – pleasures. More sinned against than sinners.

To hear the way that this accounting phrase is creeping into all budget reporting, political comment and common parlance is a saddening and infuriating example of the way in which idiots have perverted our beloved English language.

When it comes to writing about budgets, my focus will be on syntax and there will not be a ‘sin tax’ reference in sight.

There is nothing holy, worthy or saintly about taxing booze and fags and do not let this distorted language suggest anything different.

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