Journalism makes blunders but still feeds democracy: an insider’s view

The Sunday Times, South Africa’s largest weekend newspaper, was used to spread disinformation. Gianluigi Guercia/AFP via Getty Images

Anton Harber, University of the Witwatersrand

Anton Harber, the veteran South African journalist, editor and journalism professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, has a new book out. So, For the Record: Behind the Headlines in an Era of State Capture is a deep dive into the conduct of the media as mega corruption and state capture engulfed and eventually brought down President Jacob Zuma’s administration. Politics editor Thabo Leshilo asked the author to provide the highlights.

What prompted you to write the book?

For one thing, it is a great story to tell, complete with all the ingredients of a thriller: brothels, spies, brown envelopes and honeypots, all laced with intrigue, deceit and backstabbing. My interest, though, came from a concern that our community of journalists was not dealing properly with the series of journalistic fiascos at the Sunday Times, the country’s biggest and most powerful newspaper.

I was on a panel commissioned to conduct an internal investigation at the paper in 2007, after a similar series of journalistic disasters. Our far-reaching recommendations were not implemented. And so, perhaps inevitably, the paper went off the rails again in 2011-6 with another series of stories that boosted those trying to capture state institutions for corrupt purposes. The paper had to retract and apologise for these disastrous stories.

As journalists, we hold those in power to account and demand full transparency from them. But we also wield public power, so I think it is crucial that we hold ourselves to account when we mess up. If we don’t, the politicians will step in and that would be a disaster.

Media self-criticism is not just important to improve our journalism, it is a political, professional and moral imperative. That is why I thought it important to take a deep dive into what happened at the Sunday Times.

The other reason is that this same period saw some of finest and most effective investigative journalism in this country. The #GuptaLeaks exposé in particular contributed to bringing down a president. The email leaks provided the evidence of the extraordinary and malign influence the Gupta brothers– who stand accused of having captured the South African state for their enrichment – had over the president and his family.

Taken together, I thought these parallel tales would provide insight into the highs and lows of journalism, showing its importance and value, but also its limitations and problems. I hope to enable a better public understanding of the work of journalists and the media, as I think that there is confusion over what we do and don’t do in our newsrooms.

Read more: Jürgen Schadeberg: chronicler of life across apartheid’s divides

This was not just a Sunday Times issue, but it was about the nature and state of our media, and hopefully I offer some insight into that.

As someone who was involved in the 2007 report, knew all the characters well, and who had been part of judging panels for the Taco Kuiper Award for investigative journalism, which recognised the Sunday Times for one of these stories and then withdrew that recognition, I had a rare personal perspective on events.

In a way, the book is a personal account from an insider, and I hope I bring to bear an understanding of journalism derived from 40 years of practice, including my own fair share of journalistic blunders.

Why do your findings matter?

I hope that I show how good journalism nourishes and feeds citizenship and democracy, but also that it is an imperfect profession working in imperfect structures in an imperfect society – and we need to face up to the reality of what this means.

Journalism can do some good, and it can do a lot of harm, and it usually does both. We have to try and understand how to try and do more good and less harm. This is particularly important at a time when the work we do is facing the triple onslaught of political, financial and disinformation storms.

An important element of the story is how state structures, such as the State Security Agency and Police Crime Intelligence, deliberately and malevolently interfered to distort and harm our journalism for their own purposes. The question to ask is:

what was it about the Sunday Times that made this newsroom fall for these tricks, when others didn’t?

We have a lot to fix in this country, and as journalists we can start by trying to fix our journalism and our media.

What are the implications for the media?

What I highlight is that this is not a problem affecting one newspaper. The problem runs deep in the structure and history of our media. Hopefully, those reading my book will get a better understanding of this and be better equipped for a discussion about what needs to be done to make our media and our democracy work better.

We are facing an onslaught of disinformation, enabled by social media, and we cannot counter it unless we rebuild journalism so that it is a valued and trusted part of our society.

How can media houses and journalists fix the problems you identify?

First we need to understand the problem and its causes. That is what I explore in the book. Part of this is to see that this is not a problem for media houses or journalists alone. This is a social, political and economic problem that can’t be solved by the media industry on its own. We have to work with the private sector, the public sector, the philanthropic sector, civil society and the state to ensure we have a media that meets our society’s needs.

We cannot deal with the issues of professionalism and accountability without solving the problems of the fundamental economic structure of the industry. To be a quality industry, we need to be a strong one, and to do this, we need to find a new way to restore its financial foundation.

Read more: Journalism of Drum’s heyday remains cause for celebration — 70 years later

We are in the extraordinary position where philanthropically funded journalism appears to be more sustainable than the traditional advertising-driven model. This is an inversion of what we always accepted as reality. We are caught in a bind: we need citizens to value us enough to pay for our services in some form, but we don’t have the resources to produce the journalism that would show that value. We first have to recognise that this is a national and societal problem, not just a media one, and then we can tackle it.

Anton Harber, Caxton Professor of Journalism, University of the Witwatersrand

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

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Podcast: Can we save SA’s restaurants and winelands?

A vital discussion on food and wine

By John Fraser

Recorded before the latest easing of the lockdown, but still of vital relevance, a top-tier panel chats about the Covid-19 impact on the food and wine sector and the SA government’s heavy-handed approach.

Joining me are lunch-out legend David Bullard, food and wine guru Michael Olivier, business strategist Duane Newman and Klerksdorp’s own James Lennox.

Listen, laugh and learn.

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SA Needs Marshal Law to Fight Covid-19

Or not….?

By John Fraser

Wanna hear a great joke? Cyril believes history will give him the thumbs up.

OK, he is not alone. Trump, Boris and that bozo from Brazil also stuffed up the Covid response, with millions paying with their lives for the inept political leadership.

South Africa was a case study, though, in both daft regulation and inept government communication.

That awful Zuma woman, fine-print freak Patel and the bore of the year Jackson Mthembu (who is supposed to be good at communications but isn’t), aided by the prat in the hat who is (scarily) in charge of our police, could not have done a much worse job.

The tone was wrong, the message off-focus, and the legislation woefully misguided.

I cannot think of a better way of messing up the message and pissing off millions of citizens than they achieved by their jackboot bans on booze and cigarettes.

Heavy-handed, daft , unenforcible and unjustifiable measures have led to a mass resistance in South Africa – not to Covid-19, sadly, but to ministerial messaging.

Cyril makes the occasional speech and often he does say all the right things. But the damage is being done by the preening politicians in their so-called ‘Command Council.’ Set the DeLorean for 1984, Mildred!

Far, far too many South Africans – maybe the majority? – feel the panic is over, now that the booze and tobacco bans have been eased, shops are open and we can all go back to work.

Not that it is entirely business as usual. You still cannot buy alcohol from a South African shop on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday. These nanny Nazis are still on the rampage.

This ineptitude by our leaders is not a victimless crime. Every time I venture out to go shopping or to have a meal, I see the regulations being shat over by a public which either doesn’t realise the dangers, or which doesn’t care. Are they so retarded they don’t appreciate that they are a danger to themselves and to everyone else?

Wear a mask? Most do, some have it jauntily below their noses – and that includes food-preparation staff!

Keep your distance? I try, and am greeted with laughter or hostility. From staff and from other shoppers.

It got so bad in Dischem that I now boycott the store. And it has not been a good week to switch to Clicks.

Just today, in a Pretoria East greengrocers I had to use my trolly to keep at bay a staff member who wanted to squeeze past me in an aisle which is so narrow that it was almost a squeeze just going along single-file. (The lockdown has not been kind to my waistline).

They really do not give a toss.

So what do we do?

A rare bit of sense from Boris

Unusually, I think Boris has had an excellent idea this week, with his suggestion of a team of Covid Marshals – people to police the regulations.

Why is this not happening in SA?

There is no shortage of unemployed, the health rewards would be massive, and an army of marshals could really help to control the brain-dead shoppers, and the often brain-deader staff.

While we are at it, why are shops not being forced to close down where they do not widen their aisles to allow people to pass one-another safely?

Where are the existing teams of State inspectors? Too busy fiddling PPE tenders?

Now if Cyril were to pop up on TV and announce that the bullshit is over, and government intends to enforce the simple social-distancing rules that its droning politicians have decreed, that would be a wise move.

I would even endure another briefing from Tannie Zuma or Jackson the insufferable if – for once – they stuck to the point and announced something sensible.

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SA drinkers terrorised by the two-faced ANC government

Minister Zuma. Leading the charge towards sad sobriety

By John Fraser

Did you hear the one about the three ANC Ministers who walked into a bar? 

One tried to close it down, another to arrest all the drinkers in possession of car keys, while the third got merrily pissed.

If the Covid-19 crisis has told us anything about our government, it is that it is Hydra-like, with its many heads often in disagreement with one another.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, who seems more sensible than some in his Cabinet, is nominally in charge, but one does not get the feeling that he is in control.

Although she denies it, Nanny Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who delights in articulating the government’s response to the pandemic, seems to be in the driving seat.   She is the face of the Soviet-sounding Command Council, and seemingly delights in droning on at media briefings – once in english and then again in zulu.

I suppose one should not draw attention to this unnecessary, time-wasting duplication, for fear that she will then insist on using all 11 official languages – turning each brief and businesslike media event into an even longer linguistic marathon.

These are tough times for SA drinkers, and every fresh rumour is also a knee in the groin to our wine farms and restaurants

This week we have seen panic-buying in the bottle stores and rumours of a reimposition of pandemic prohibition.

The rumours were denied by a government whose credibility is in freefall, but we have since seen further reports that the temperance twats are indeed at it again, pushing hard for a total turnoff of the tipple taps.

As one distinguished commentator questioned: “How can they be both so puritanical and also such thieves?”   Corruption hasn’t been controlled under the lockdown, so why is there so much focus on booze-bashing?

One voice of reason in the darkness is my DA chum Dean Macpherson, who warned that the Democratic Alliance “has been reliably informed” that there is a strong lobby within the ANC by certain Ministers to reintroduce another ban on alcohol as soon as possible.

“This group of Ministers includes Police Minister Bheki Cele, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula and Cooperative Governance Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma,” he said.

Yet while the flames of fear and concern are being fanned among the drinkers of SA, the vast majority of whom are not the wife-beaters and drunk-drivers the ANC appears to be concerned about (as are we all), another arm of government has been actively boosting our booze industry – as long as the foul stuff is only exported to gullible foreigners.

The Department of Trade, Industry and Competition, the DTIC, whose duties include export promotion, has today been hosting a “Virtual Wine mission to South Korea”.

Does this mean that the SA government backs the beating of South Korean wives and supports drunken South Korean drivers, or is it that they think that South Koreans are much more responsible and well-behaved than their own citizens?

They can be trusted with booze.  We can’t.

And if the alcohol problem is so, so serious, why did they wait until the pandemic to tackle it?

There is some credibility to the excuse that booze and tobacco use will lead to more pressure on the pandemic-pounded health services, but does this justify the response?   Only if there is some hidden, temperance-tainted agenda.

With power should come restraint and responsibility, unless we are to be government by a bunch of bullies.

It is all a mess.    Mixed signals on this issue of alcohol have harmed more than just our drinkers (and our smokers are in a similar bind).

By making the clampdown on booze and tobacco so central to their Covid-19 fightback messaging, they have distorted the picture, moving the focus from the REAL challenge, of stopping the transmission of the disease.

This is why a visit to most SA stores or supermarkets is a scary, dangerous experience.  The message on social distancing is not getting through.

Why?  Because the main evangelists in our government have hijacked the anti-pandemic campaign to pursue their own ends.

And far too many South Africans are paying for this puritanical distraction.  With their lives.

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YouTube Post: ZA Confidential tasters unexcited by alcohol-free booze

Booze-hating Minister Zuma

By John Fraser

Just hours before the SA government announced it was lifting the ban on booze sales, the ZA Confidential tasters took a sober look at alcohol-free booze.

We tasted two wines and a beer, and not a drop of alcohol passed our lips.

We bought them all in Woolworths (the bottles, not the tasters): the beer was the Devil’s Peak Hero.   We also tasted the DE-ALC Chenin Blanc and the Lautus Savvy Red.

My fellow sufferers were Michael Olivier, Malcolm MacDonald, Duane Newman, Jeff Osborne, Chris Hart and Mike Schussler.

See what we thought by listening-in to our tasting, which started with a chat on the damage the lockdown has done to SA’s economy, businesses and – especially – the booze producers.

Rules, what rules? The butcher’s which ignores social distancing

Impossible to safely enter

By John Fraser

Ok.  This is not the first time I have been told I was wrong, out-of-order, unwanted. 

Although I have followed virtually every ministerial briefing since the arrival of the pandemic and studied most of the statements on the virus, I apparently know nothing about social distancing.

For what little it seems to be worth, I favour the 2-metre exclusion zone, as that is close to my height, and it is therefore fairly easy to judge if I am too close to another human being.

However, if you closely study the photo of the entrance to the Kings Meat Deli at the Lynnbridge Mall in Pretoria, you are likely to conclude that it offers a quite narrow opening into the store.

The chap at the entrance with the sanitiser spray device was standing just to the side of the door when I arrived and initially rejected my request to stand aside so I could safely enter.  He offered a social distance of centimetres, not metres.

Eventually, reluctantly, he made a small step away from me and I nervously passed inside.   More fool me.

Once inside, I headed to vent my fears at the checkout, where the staff are normally kind and helpful, but I was intercepted by a burly, aggressive butch butcher, who I assume was a member of management.   He was not carrying a cleaver and so was probably undercover.

The idiot told me insistently there was no risk at the entrance of the store, and I stood no chance of infecting others or being infected when entering his shop – as I would be “moving” and you can not catch Covid-19 when you are moving.  I suspect he has a severe case of butcher’s block.

The fact that one needs to stand still to receive a droplet of disinfectant on the hands from the charmless greeter, and would, therefore, not be moving all the time did not seem to have occurred to him.    Even if his dismissal of the basic principles of social distancing were valid, he stuck to his guns, made me feel like the villain, and was as welcoming as a tarantula who has invited a fly to dinner.

He then forcefully and unpleasantly asked me whether I planned to purchase anything -as if I normally risk life and limb to wander around displays of bits of dead animals for no reason.

When he had succeeded in making me feel very nervous and very, very unwelcome, I flung down my shopping basket and stormed out.

It may not surprise you that I will never again return to that store after the arrogant, ignorant and threatening way in which I was treated.  Which is a pity.  Their butchery is far superior to their manners.

However, we are in the midst of a deadly pandemic – and while this butcher’s shop is used to dealing with dead creatures, I have no wish to be counted among them.

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Steps towards a Smarter Lockdown: Game Lodges

Time for a drink

By Greg Mills and Ray Hartley

A ‘sledgehammer to crack a nut’ is an apt description for the current lockdown regime, yet there are ways out of this increasingly costly mess. This is what can be done to save tourism.

Africa’s game lodge and viewing industry has been badly hit by the Covid-19 lockdown, with the prohibition on foreign and domestic leisure travel. Can something be done to save this industry – a vital part of the country’s tourism trade – and return it to contributing to the economy?

Wesgro – the Western Cape’s agency to promote economic growth – has helped to compile a report with the Game Lodge Industry Group on what can be done to save it right now: the safe and considered reopening of domestic tourism. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, the tourism sector directly accounted for 2.8% of South Africa’s gross domestic product, or some R139 billion in 2018.

“Many of the lodges in South Africa face imminent closure due to COVID-19 restrictions” reads the report. “The immediate and safe opening of domestic leisure tourism could help sustain these businesses until our international borders are re-opened.“

The agency is hoping to redirect some R83,7 bn that is spent annually on international outbound tourism by South Africans to visiting local lodges for game viewing.

The report says the 496 private game lodges in South Africa:

• Employ some 19 700 people in total, of whom 16 600 are from local communities;

• Pay salaries to local employees amounting to R1,5 billion a year;

• Spend R1,2 billion annually on local procurement;

• Based on tourism job multipliers, sustain a total of almost 33 625 jobs in the local communities and areas in which they operate;

• Spend almost R789 million annually on conservation programmes, excluding concession fees; and

• Spend R190 million annually on community projects such as clinics and schools and SMME support.

The report argues that visiting local game lodges would be safe for domestic tourists, saying “inter- and intra-provincial domestic leisure travel for stays in game lodges and provincial and national parks can be enabled with low to no COVID-19 risks.”

This is because lodges can easily comply with standards for business operations during Covid-19.

“The lodge experience is largely outdoors and in the open-air, for dining, walking and observing game and open game vehicle drives. Adhering to the protocols, open vehicles will ensure unconnected individuals are not seated together.”

Domestic tourists would travel to lodges in private vehicles and lodges were small, averaging 13 rooms, usually spread out with guests spending time on their own patios or in their rooms.

With usually no more than 14 guests at a time, guest-to-guest contact can be minimised and would be much less risky than most other consumer-facing industries.

The game-lodge industry was involved in the development of the Tourism Business Council of South Africa’s (TBCSA) comprehensive health and safety protocols for all elements in the tourism value chain and will adhere to these protocols which have been reviewed by an epidemiologist, the National Department of Tourism (NDT) and the Department of Health (DoH) and have been accredited with the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) Safe Travels stamp.

Allowing domestic visits to lodges would help sustain this industry which is a vital cornerstone of the larger tourism industry with 45% of overseas visitors to South Africa enjoying wildlife experiences in 2018.

“Without the private reserve and safari lodge industry, there would be a vastly reduced offering to international tourists visiting South Africa for leisure tourism.”

“In addition, on average, each lodge spends R1,6 million rand annually on conservation and conservation education. Applied to the 496 lodges, this equates to R789 million spent on conservation by the lodges.”

A smarter lockdown is essential to the retention of jobs. Game-lodges are a good place to start with the tourism industry.

Hartley and Mills are with the Brenthurst Foundation which recently published ‘The Conservation Continent’.

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ZA lockdown lunacy. A podcast conversation on prohibition and other punishment

Wonderful, wonderful Cape wine

By John Fraser

Normally, the ZA Confidential podcasts involve a tasting of wine or some other boozy delight.

However, following the second imposition of lockdown prohibition in South Africa, the focus has shifted.

Instead, our discussion was on the lockdown itself, and the heavy-handed treatment of long-suffering citizens by our pitiless politicians.

Joining me were IT wizard Malcolm MacDonald, analyst Chris Gilmour, economist Chris Hart and lavish-liver David Bullard.

Click below for a discussion tannie Zuma would not approve of…..

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SA restaurant madness. Booze still banned.

We must dine without wine.


By John Fraser

Well, we can now eat and be merry in restaurants again, but with no booze.

The latest anti-alcohol blast from our nanny government came as a bit of a shock.

President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on Wednesday night that restaurants could open again for sit-down meals, with safety measures.  What he didn’t seem to say in his speech was that no alcohol could be served.

Once again, the booze-hating fraction inside the Cabinet appears to have triumphed over the rest.

Now, I am no great expert on the finances of running a restaurant, although I have some dear friends who are in that profession, but I am pretty sure that it will be far more difficult to make a living if you not only have to restrict numbers to ensure safe distancing of clients – but on top of this, the financial loss of not selling booze will be a crushing blow.

And what about the customers?  I have endured no-alcohol meals in some Muslim-owned restaurants, including in some of the top restaurants when I visited Saudi Arabia.

It is not the same.  Trust me.

Fine dining, for me anyway, involves fine wine.  Or beer…  With a cheeky post-consumption shot of something to aid the digestion.

You eat and drink to be merry, and there is not much fun if you go out just to eat and sulk.

In any event, I understand that looming legislation will not allow the tiniest trace of alcohol when you are driving, further drying up the supply of customers for our restaurants.

Yes, there are the Ubers and others.   But that further adds to the cost of the experience.

All in all, the lifeline which the government seemed to offer to the restaurant trade….is more like a tightening noose.

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South African proposal to breed wildlife for slaughter courts disaster

The proposed Meat Safety Act will see more wild animals landing on dinner plates.

Chris Alden, London School of Economics and Political Science and Ross Harvey, University of Johannesburg

There are times of spectacular policy myopia – and promoting a revision to the Meat Safety Act by the South African government is surely one of these moments.

In late February the government proposed adding over 90 local and non-indigenous species to the list of animals regulated under the Meat Safety Act. Prior to this the act allowed for the commercial slaughter of 35 “domesticated animals” and “wild game” species.

The list of 90 included rhinoceros, hippopotamus and giraffe, as well as “all other species of animals not mentioned above, including birds, fish and reptiles that may be slaughtered as food for human and animal consumption”.

The bill is currently being circulated for comment.

The purpose of the Meat Safety Act is to provide measures to promote meat safety and the safety of animal products for human and animal consumption. The effect of the proposed amendment is to make the whole act applicable to any animal to be slaughtered.

It appears that at least part of the reason for these amendments is to regulate the slaughter of captive-bred lions, whose bones are exported in growing quantities to Asian markets.

If passed in its present form the act opens up the possibility of massive consumption of wildlife. How? By inadvertently driving up the demand for bushmeat through legitimising the consumption of protected wild animals.

A growing conservation concern

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the dangers of the transmission of viruses from wildlife to humans. The same pattern of infectious disease “species jumping” was implicated in the origin and spread of COVID-19, Ebola and SARS.

This zoonotic spillover risk is strongest in “wet markets”, where live animals, fish and birds are butchered and sold to consumers on-site (as well as products like skins, scales and horns). A systematic review in 2007 concluded that:

The presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb.

Bushmeat consumption across the continent is already a daunting conservation problem. Bushmeat increasingly serves as a supplement to protein from other sources such as cattle, chickens, goats and sheep.

Read more:
Banning bushmeat could make it harder to stop future pandemics

Our fear is that the change in the law could lead to more wet markets being established in South Africa. While the amendments increase regulatory control, it’s not clear that the government will have the capacity to enforce them. More likely is the risk of realising unintended consequences.

Individuals and small businesses are likely to see this as an opportunity to enter a sector where start-up costs are minimal, sanitary standards difficult to enforce and oversight non-existent.

Trade in small markets already exists in South Africa, which double as markets for traditional medicine in some instances. One study of the Faraday Market in Johannesburg revealed that at least 147 identified vertebrates were being traded for both bushmeat and traditional medicine.

Preserving scarce wildlife

Putting African wildlife on the menu for mass consumption holds implications that are important for our relationship with the wild and environment. It reduces wild animals to mere consumables.

Remember that these amendments come in the wake of 32 wild animal species having recently been included in changes to the Animal Improvement Act, essentially relegating them to mere agricultural products.

Read more:
What is the wildlife trade? And what are the answers to managing it?

What is being put forward by government signals that it is open season on the country’s national heritage and authorises a great expansion of the legal procurement of wild animals for sale.

As has been demonstrated time and time again, the formal legalisation of wildlife trade provides both a cover and an incentive for the illegal trade in wildlife and its products.

For example, the trade in perlemoen, or abalone, has been legal for generations and harvested on a sustainable basis. However, once permits were issued to unscrupulous front companies from Asia, the systematic stripping of the coast commenced with exports packed and sent out of the Cape and Johannesburg all under the legal guise of a legitimate business.

Read more:
First steps to tackling South Africa’s abalone poaching

A significant portion of perlemoen has disappeared from coastal shores, depriving South Africans of employment, valued-add production (such as canning, now performed in Asian countries) and enjoyment of a national resource.

Attempts to protect the species through listing on Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) appendixes have been thwarted by pressure from a fishing industry subject to corruption.

Defeating public health and conservation objectives

Promoting the consumption of wildlife in South Africa will only intensify the commodification of the country’s natural heritage. And it will potentially create zoonotic spillover health risks for humans as well as from wild animals like wildebeest to domesticated animals such as cattle.

We cannot continue to treat our delicate ecological systems as free capital. They are the vital life support systems without which nothing and no one can survive.The Conversation

Chris Alden, Professor of International Relations, London School of Economics and Political Science and Ross Harvey, Director of Research and Programmes, Good Governance Africa, University of Johannesburg

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

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