Poor coverage of floods in southern Africa? Blame the media bosses

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A woman searches for materials to rebuild her home after the passage of Cyclone Idai, in Beira City, central Mozambique.
EPA-EFE/Tiago Petinga

Glenda Daniels, University of the Witwatersrand

South African media has been criticised on social media for its initially superficial and underwhelming coverage of the massive floods in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi in the wake of the devastating Tropical Cyclone Idai. Serious news consumers had to rely on foreign news sources instead of local media as the grim picture of the destruction – which included hundreds of deaths, flooding, disease, and havoc to resources and infrastructure – started emerging.

In my view the criticism is valid. The coverage of the floods by South African media has been poor. In fact, I’ve hardly seen a local journalist’s face from on the scene coverage.

Based on my experience of newsrooms, plus my research and as a former coordinator/author of the annual State of the Newsroom report as well as presently coordinator of the Job Losses/New Beats project in South Africa – it’s clear that this is due to the fact that local newsrooms have been depleted of journalists. This, in turn, is because the media companies have not handled the transition to digitisation well.

But are journalists to blame? I would argue that people should scrutinise media companies rather than blame the profession. Those who criticise journalists tend to conflate media companies and the individuals who are the workhorses in the newsroom. They are not the same thing.

This is happening all over the world, where companies are clumsy in how they are handling the transition to digital. It’s a disaster for democracy because the experience of trained journalists is lost and we have little context in reporting on events such as natural disasters as well as elections.

You find that younger journalists don’t have mentors to help them through reporting. Media companies are looking for profits by cutting the experienced journalists’ salaries and employing those who they can pay less.

What this shows is that traditional media is dying. It is also not fulfilling its mandate to be informative, to provide the facts and serve the public.

What’s gone wrong

Newsrooms have mainly become “content producers” made up of people who have technical capabilities such as producing videos and podcasts. Podcasts are good, but even there you need journalists who can ask the pertinent questions and do good intros and angles with context.

Editors are increasingly demanding that journalists stay indoors in the newsrooms so that they can do desk work to fill pages with content rather than to travel out on a breaking story.

The main reason cited for this is that there isn’t budget set aside for travel, which would include flights to Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi as well as accommodation and food.

Another factor is that newsrooms have been shrinking at an alarming rate. Conservative estimates in research to be published later this year show that South African newsrooms have shrunk by about half in the past decade.

In 2007 there were about 10 000 journalists. Now there are about 5 000.

South Africa fits very much with the developed world global pattern of job losses in the traditional media sector. The losses are mainly in the senior category of journalists (40-60-year-olds). In other words, those who are experienced.

The age-old practice of having journalists who are specialists – they write about specific fields such as science and education, also known as beat-reporters – have all but disappeared. Other layers that have been removed from newsrooms included those responsible for editing articles and fact-checking for accuracy. This explains the spike in mistakes in newspapers as well as online publications.

An aerial view shows damage from the flood waters after cyclone Idai made landfall in Sofala Province, Central Mozambique, 21 March 2019.
EPA-EFE/Emidio Jozine

The issue of resources is a particularly big challenge when disasters are being covered. For example, it’s not possible simply to send one person. At the very least a team of two is needed – a camera person or photographer and a journalist. And resources and backup are needed – and journalists just do not get this support.

The role of social media

Social media is partly filling the gap left by traditional media. But not completely. It’s also an arena for misinformation, malinformation (disinformation with malicious intent) propaganda and general falsehoods.

On top of this, there’s a great deal of hatred on social media. The latest and most worrying is cyber misogyny and the trolling and vilification of women, especially women journalists who are prominent, those who speak out and investigate corruption.

There are no checks and verification on social media. Anyone can post anything – unfiltered. Anyone can believe anything. Right-wing movements and populism are growing – enabled by social media. Not because of social media but enabled by – these types are able to connect with each other and discuss strategies on how to kill, for example.

It’s contrary to what we all thought 10 years ago, that social media would act as the equaliser, the leveller – everyone would have access. In fact, what has happened is that the promise of cheap broadband has not been rolled out, nor does everyone have a smartphone to be engaging in debates and discussions.

Social media has become more of a divider between rich and poor than ever. It’s also a platform for great divisiveness.

This is a disaster for democracy. Media companies need to press the pause button to reflect on what they are doing. If they don’t, it will cost democracy dearly.

The New Beats is an international research project based in Melbourne.The Conversation

Glenda Daniels, Associate Professor in Media Studies, University of the Witwatersrand

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

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The great Eskom reprieve.  Confidence or con?


By John Fraser

Aren’t we blessed? After more than a week, with days and nights of revolving power cuts, the lights are back on.  The crisis is over. We are receiving the service for which we are paying – or, in the case of many in Soweto, for which we have not paid in years.

Good stuff Eskom. The parasital parastatal has been transformed into a modern miracle-worker, a savior, a saint for whom we no longer need to light a candle; we just have to flick a switch.

But is all as it seems?   Can we go so effortlessly from Code Red to Code Bright and Shining?

I wonder.

My own conspiracy theory may be totally ridiculous, and I am happy if you dismiss it as the ravings of a light-deprived brain.

However, I just wonder whether the looming election may be responsible for lifting the shadow from Eskom, for the ending of the crisis, for delivering us from the darkness.

Just suppose you were a cynical ANC politician, and just suppose you were worried about your party receiving a knock in the elections? What would you do about the power cuts?

I would opt for the band-aid approach.  No, not by calling in Bob Geldof, but by papering over the cracks, putting a few paper clips in the fuse box, getting the system up and running for a while.

Therefore, we can hobble along towards election day without power cuts, or with very few.  The saint-like Cyril can receive the glowing adulation of the fully-lit disciples, and the ANC can win another four years to repair, or to further bugger-up, the economy.   We may have different views on that one.

Of course, once the wheels start falling off again, and the darkness returns, it won’t matter as much for a newly re-elected ANC.

The ANC will have boosted its election prospects, and if the power cuts resume as the polls close, it can blame apartheid, Steve Hofmeyr, white monopoly capital, global warming, or the level of sugar in fizzy drinks.

The lights will have shone for just long enough.

And, after that?  Well, you can get away with a lot under the cover of darkness.

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Why South Africans are prone to falling for charlatans in the church

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Pastor Alph Lukau – his “resurrection” of a man, made world news.
Alph Lukau/Facebook

Dion Forster, Stellenbosch University

South Africans – like millions of people across the world – are seriously susceptible to religious abuse.

The local media has once again been abuzz with a litany of shocking stories about manipulation, abuse and fraud by pastors. The latest one, a fake “resurrection” made headlines around the world. A video of Pastor Alph Lukau “raising” a man from the dead went viral and even sparked the #ResurrectionChallenge.

Why do South Africans fall for these religious snakeskin oil salesmen (and women)?

One possible reason is that faith continues to play a very significant role in South Africa. In the last household survey over 84% of South Africans indicated that they are Christians. And a 2010 Pew Report found that 74% of South Africans said that religion played an important role in their daily decisions, values and shaping of their morals.

In addition, churches and religious leaders enjoy higher levels of public trust in South African society than either the government or private sector. This is unlike many other modern democracies in the 21st century.

Some suggest that this susceptibility to religious belief is due to the moral and political failures of the state and politicians. Religious leaders and institutions gain trust in situations where the population faces high levels of economic and social vulnerability, as is the daily reality for many South Africans. Religious groups are often the only sources of basic care and hope in many communities.

We believe that South Africans allow charlatan pastors to win their trust, take their money and get them to engage in frightening, and even comical, quasi-religious acts because of a combination of two factors. Many South Africans have high levels of trust in religious leaders. At the same time there’s a great deal of economic need. In situations like this people look to “supernatural” means to solve basic problems. Research on these phenomena in countries such as Brazil and Nigeria shows similar tendencies.

Some answers

People are drawn to what are known as prosperity gospel pastors because they are offered the opportunity of getting out of poverty and becoming rich by means of God’s blessings. South Africans who are losing hope of gaining adequate employment, or dealing with rising debt, see the lavish lifestyles of prosperity gospel pastors is appealing.

The message is that: obedience and sacrificial giving (to the pastor and their church) is the road to wealth.

Second, in a situation in which there is inadequate health care, it isn’t surprising that people turn to “miraculous” healers to find relief from suffering. This phenomenon is not unique to South Africa – it happens in other countries around the world where religion is important and social systems are weak.

How are these unethical leaders and their sectarian communities spotted?

Tell-tale signs

One of the most telling characteristics is an overt and gaudy display of personal wealth. The intention is to extravagantly display the super-abundance of supposed “divine blessing”.

Sadly, the wealth on display is derived by manipulation, even criminality, or excessive and unsustainable debt.

Next, is the tendency towards the supernatural and the spectacular – miracle healings, raising people from the dead, prophesying and sharing visions.

These “miracles” are frequently staged, using actors, psychological tools or technologies. They serve to attract members, and also to establish a hierarchical religious power structure with the pastor at the top.

The veneration and deification of the pastor is another common characteristic. They are presented as a “spiritual elite”, having direct access to God, a special measure of God’s blessing, and particularly powerful spiritual gifts. As God’s “chosen one” these aspects serve both to give the pastors power over their members, but also to shroud them in mystery.

In contemporary religious sociology, this is referred to as “religious exceptionalism”. The laws of nature, culture, the religious tradition, the state and morality do not apply to them since they are an “exception”, supposedly by God’s divine choice.

In some instances, these leaders and their communities display cult-like tendencies, seeking to isolate their members from regular life and their friends and families, who are portrayed as sinful and evil. It is under such conditions of deep trust, sincere faith, great need, facing spiritual manipulation and isolation, that many of the abuses take place.

Rights and freedom

What should be done to curtail such abuses?

The South African government has sought to regulate religious leaders and communities through the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights, Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities. The commission is attempting to set up standards for conduct, registration and qualification of religious groupings and leaders.

There is some concern that the state-appointed commission will use laws and policies to infringe on the legitimate rights to freedom of religion, and possibly even silence critique of the state.

Also, many of the abuses are not primarily religious or theological in nature. They are covered by civil law that should simply be enacted to protect citizens.

South Africa remains a deeply religious nation. The state and religious leaders and their communities bear a shared responsibility to identify and expose corrupt religious leaders, as well as safeguard citizens against abuse while maintaining their rights to religious freedom.

Simbarashe Pondani has contributed to this article.The Conversation

Dion Forster, Head of Department, Systematic Theology and Ecclesiology, Professor in Ethics and Public Theology, Director of the Beyers Naudé Centre for Public Theology, Stellenbosch University

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

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Why corruption in South Africa isn’t simply about Zuma and the Guptas

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The collapse of VBS Mutual Bank in South Africa shows that corruption is endemic.
Tiso Blackstar

Karl von Holdt, University of the Witwatersrand

Corruption in South Africa isn’t simply a matter of bad morals or weak law enforcement. It’s embedded in processes of class formation – specifically, the formation of new black elites. This means corruption is primarily a matter of politics and the shape of the economy.

In a recently published paper, I attempt to shed fresh light on the unconvincing narratives that have been presented in the media, NGOs and academic circles about the events of the past 10 years.

These narratives generally depict events as a struggle between two opposing forces. On the one side are a network of politicians, officials, brokers and businessmen centred on former President Jacob Zuma and the Gupta family. All are bent on looting, state capture and self-enrichment. On the other are a band of righteous politicians and citizens. This group is seen as drawing together the “old” ANC, activists, “good” business and citizens in general. They are intent on rebuilding institutions and good governance, the rule of law, international credibility and fostering growth and development.

I argue that a much deeper set of social forces underlies and shapes the struggles within the governing party, the African National Congress (ANC), and the society more broadly. These political struggles are inseparable from struggles over the shape of the economy.

Limited access

The primary process to change the economy has been the drive to accelerate the emergence of new black elites. But institutional interventions, such as black economic empowerment, have been insufficient.

Already, during the Thabo Mbeki period as well as the presidency of Nelson Mandela, an alternative informal political-economic system was emerging at national, provincial and local levels. Through this, networks of state officials, ambitious entrepreneurs as well as small-time operators, were rigging tenders or engaging in other kinds of fraud so as to sustain or establish businesses, or simply to finance self-enrichment.

Because of a number of factors, there was little alternative for channelling the aspirations and burning sense of injustice of black elites and would be elites in post-apartheid South Africa. These factors include the property clause in the Constitution, the conservative strategies adopted by the ANC government and the fact that large corporations and white-owned businesses dominated the economy.

This means that opportunities are few, demand is high and competition is fierce. In this context, the state is where people who are locked out are most likely to gain some access.

This links to the issue of violence. The emergence of new elite classes is often a ferociously contested, ugly and violent affair. South Africa is no different from many other post-colonial countries – or indeed the histories of the Euro-American elites that currently dominate the globe.

In South Africa, this violence takes the form of burning down homes and state facilities, intimidation, assault, the deployment of the criminal justice system to protect some and target others, and, increasingly, assassination.

I argue that this set of practices constitutes an informal political-economic system. By a system, I don’t mean a structure which is centrally coordinated or planned. What I’m referring to is a pervasive and decentralised set of interlocking networks that reinforce and compete with one another in mutually understood ways, and include the use of violence as a strategic resource.

Former South African president Jacob Zuma in court on corruption charges.
EPA-EFE/Rogan Ward / Pool

This system preceded Zuma’s presidency and extended far beyond the Zuma-Gupta network. The recent revelations about corruption at the Zondo commission into state capture, VBS mutual bank or in the book, How to steal a city by Crispian Olver, make this abundantly clear.

It should also be abundantly clear that the informal political-economic system necessarily entangles President Cyril Ramaphosa’s core network of institution builders.

Ramaphosa’s challenge

Ramaphosa’s key challenge is to build a stable coalition within the ANC so as to embark on his project of institution building. His trajectory, and the future shape of corruption in South Africa, will be determined by the character of the coalition he can forge – or that will be forced on him – among party barons within the ANC.

For the purpose of building institutions and attracting investment, it will be necessary to establish as stable a coalition as possible. This means it will have to be a broad coalition. One thing is sure: the coalition will include corrupt figures. It already does. The informal system of patronage politics will remain pervasive.

Even so, Ramaphosa’s power is precarious in the ANC. The odds are stacked against success in establishing stability. For the medium-term, the trajectory of politics is likely to be characterised by multiple contestations over material opportunities, political power and symbolic representation. This will give rise to an increasingly volatile, unstable and violent political space.

To return, then, to the prevailing narrative and its misreading of the politics of corruption.

Deep structural issues

The problem with the narrative is that it assumes it’s possible simply to remove some “rotten apples”, and it sets standards Ramaphosa cannot possibly match.

Perhaps, though, it is a useful fiction for the mobilisation of civil society, journalists and judges, which at the very least may contribute to containing corruption?

There is some validity in this. Yet it fails to direct attention to the deep structural issues which give rise to corruption as an aspect of class formation.

The only long-term and stabilising solution would be to draw into the formal system some of the purposes of the informal system. This would require a much more fundamental redistribution of assets and wealth, which could be deployed in the large-scale formation of a new black business class, primarily located in manufacturing and agriculture, as well as to fixing the education crisis. The result would be the formation of professional, scientific and technical middle classes.

This kind of solution will not emerge from the Ramaphosa administration, which is much more fixed on reproducing the policies of the Mbeki era. The problem is that these were what created the opportunity for the rise of Zuma in the first place.The Conversation

Karl von Holdt, Senior Researcher, Society Work and Politics Institute, University of the Witwatersrand

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

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Beware the ANC pension looters


By John Fraser

Want to die destitute?  To be buried in a paupers’ grave?  Well, the ANC can help.

Plans to direct even more SA pension fund resources into prescribed assets have been revealed as a major menace.

The warning came from esteemed economist Mike Schussler at a briefing at the SA Institute of Race Relations, which decided to offer an example to its media guests of the plight of paupers by offering no hospitality at the lunchtime briefing.

Schussler explained that, unlike, say, Argentina, South Africa might be able to avoid calling in the IMF if its finances are further damaged by runaway government spending.

Instead, the state could raise more funds by insisting that a larger share of pension funds needs to be invested in government bonds of one sort or another – including those of financially-cancerous Eskom.

He outlined the scale of pension fund resources in SA, where about one in three of we South Africans have some form of pension investment.

“The value is enormous – R4.3 trillion in 2017,” he said.

“We have 8th biggest pension assets in the world.  We are a young country, and it is incredible to have such assets.

“They are the 5th highest in the world, in terms of pension fund assets to GDP.”

Schussler explained that there is already legislation which caps overseas investment of some pension funds, and he suggested it would not be difficult to further cut that percentage.

This strategy has been looked upon favourably by the ANC.

“Public debt is close to pension assets, as a percentage of GDP,” said Schussler.

“Once public debt overtakes pension assets we will be in trouble.

“Government may legislate to keep more of the pension pool here in SA.

“It may drive more investment into government bonds.  You may force people to invest into things they do not want to invest in.

“If we were Argentina, we would have to run to the IMF.  But we have large pension funds and an existing law.  If you have corrupt activites, the more the motivation not to run to the IMF.”

Schussler, who at one time worked for state transport utility Transnet, noted that his fears are not just theoretical.

“You have Transnet pensioners in dire straits, because of the way their pension funds were placed (in poor Transnet-linked investments),” he warned.

“About 60 000 of these Transnet pensioners are left. A lot of people died in abject poverty.

“It is crucial there is professional oversight of pension funds.

“Not getting returns can make you poorer than you think.  Ask the people at Transnet now.  How many of them are in paupers’ graves?”

The IRR is campaigning to have people contact their pension funds, to voice their concerns and to motivate more opposition to the state threat.

Talks are also planned with the financial services representative body ASISA.

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How droughts will affect South Africa’s broader economy

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Mmatlou Kalaba, University of Pretoria

Droughts have become more commonplace in South Africa in recent years. In the past two decades since 1990, 12 of those years were defined as drier years compared to only seven years in the previous 20 years.

The latest period included three consecutive years of drier conditions, between 2014 to 2016. In some regions, such as the Western Cape, the country’s second largest province in terms of economic contribution, the drought continued into 2017.

These droughts are associated with climate changethe effect of human behaviour on the planet’s temperature.

Over the past two years, the Western Cape was forced to set strict water restrictions – including curbs on irrigation – as dam levels dropped to below 20%. This had a direct effect on agriculture and food production, as well as ripple effects across the country.

In the province, more than R5 billion was lost to the economy, largely due to the drought. This matters for the country as a whole because the Western Cape contributes 22% to national agricultural GDP. And the deciduous fruit and wine industries, and increasingly the citrus industry, are key exports and contribute significantly to South Africa’s overall agri-economy.

The economic implications of all of these outcomes are dire. From 2015 to 2017 South Africa’s economy grew by a mere 1.1% average per annum, with the agricultural sector growing at a rate of less than 0.5%. That’s not enough to make a dent on the country’s biggest challenges, which include high rates of inequality, poverty as well as unemployment.

Western Cape as a case study

Tourism sector: The drought negatively affected the province’s tourism sector. Even though the impact hasn’t been quantified, the number of tourists visiting the province went down during the drought period. This was also reflected in the fact that year-on-year overnight guests in the region grew at a mere 1% from 2016 to 2017, compared with 7% a year earlier. Some hotels had bookings declining by between 10% and 15% in 2018, compared to 2017.

Tourism in the Western Cape is estimated to employ about 300 000 people.

Food prices: the impact of drought on food prices was severe with staple food items such as maize increasing. This affected mostly poor households which spend relatively large portions of their income on food – as much as 34% of their total income.

Also, lower agricultural production has affected food supplies. This, in turn, could increase food prices and food insecurity.

Jobs: The Western Cape has the biggest agricultural workforce in South Africa – nearly a quarter of the country’s farm workers are employed in the region. And agriculture and agro-processing are responsible for 18% of employment opportunities in the province.

The drought has led to job losses in the province’s agriculture sector. The 2017 third quarterly labour force survey showed that approximately 25,000 jobs were lost from the agricultural sector nationally. More than 20 000 of these were lost in the Western Cape province. Many were associated with the drought.

Most farm workers are unlikely to get jobs elsewhere, which means that job losses will worsen poverty.

Impact on the fiscus

If the pattern of drought continues, it’s likely to affect the country’s financial standing too. This is for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the National Treasury will have to continue spending money on disaster relief, as opposed to other economic activities. This year, for example, the South African government may need close to R3 billion sought by farmers severely affected by the drought.

Future assistance could be in the form of helping build infrastructure like boreholes and supporting farmers who need to reduce stock.

Secondly, continuing droughts could force up the country’s import bill. Declining agricultural production could lead to shortages of some food items like maize, wheat and some protein sources such as meat and eggs. This could, in turn, force South Africa to import more.

Thirdly, a shortage of local produce could push up prices. This could affect food inflation and push up the consumer price index. Given that the South African Reserve Bank uses interest rates to control inflation, this could lead to higher interest rates which will affect the broader economy.

Climate change a reality

Climate change poses a threat to everyone. Governments, farmers and society in general, need to take proactive steps to deal with the outcomes of changing weather patterns.

Over time, agricultural production will need to adapt to new methods and approaches. These may include the use of drought-resistant seed varieties, modern technologies to adapt and taking up more crop insurance. These approaches are readily available to farmers who have the resources. It’s the developing, smallholder and emerging farmers that remain at risk.

Governments can assist farmers by providing infrastructure support making new laws that support the conservation of resources. And the government can provide financial support for the development of new technologies as well as seed varieties that are adaptable and can withstand severe weather patterns.

This requires better planning. In addition, the government must work closely with the agricultural sector.The Conversation

Mmatlou Kalaba, Senior Lecturer in Agricultural Economics, University of Pretoria

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

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The battles of black business

By John Fraser

It could have started better.  On the eve of last week’s Black Business Council summit, there was a blistering attack on its president Sandile Zungu by his counterpart at BUSA, Sipho Pityana.  

Zungu had been close to Jacob Zuma, and the allegation was that he had been too close – and had been party to state capture.

Zungu, in turn, hit back, but the episode overshadowed his opening address and the whole row did little for the image of black business.

Having insisted that all delegates be there well before 9am on the first day, the session kicked off at 9.30.  After that, the over-stuffed agenda led to more and more time lapses, so that at the end of the day sessions were rattled off at insulting speed.

I am pretty sure I saw one panellist disappear in disgust at having to wait over an hour for his session.  Certainly, he was there on time, but he did not take part in the discussion.

Having experienced the disorganisation of Day 1, I avoided Day 2.

I did manage to listen to at least one excellent session, at which there was once again confirmation that Eskom’s vindictive delays in approving private sector power projects had led to manufacturing businesses going bust.

Even worse was the deplorable claim that some delays in state payments to small businesses have led to the owners committing suicide.

Unbelievable, and a strong reason for sorting out state procurement and payments, and for imposing strict penalties on those useless, scumbag civil servants who are anything but civil.

Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan came up with a figure of R419bn for Eskom’s debt, in what was otherwise the most political, (and least forceful) speech I have seen him give.

Meanwhile, Small Business Minister Lindiwe Zulu pulled out the race card, suggesting that corruption had begun in the apartheid era.

True, of course, but that does not diminish – as she seemed to imply – the large-scale looting carried out by the Guptas, Zumas and their many co-conspirators.

Two wrongs do not make a right.

The sooner her potentially-important – but actually waste-of-time – ministry is abolished, the better.   Our small businesses deserve proper attention, and they should be part of the mainstream discussion and government structure, not some ministerial backwater.

On balance, this was a worthwhile gathering, but the BBC has quite a way to go before it emerges as the unchallenged voice of black business.

If, indeed, we really need one in this multi-racial rainbow nation?

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