News in South Africa 21st December:
1. Covid – cases drop but deaths rise:
South Africa’s daily coronavirus cases almost halved amid a fourth wave of infections fueled by the omicron variant.
The country recorded 8,515 new infections in the past 24 hours, data from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases showed Monday. That’s a 44% drop from a day earlier and the lowest number of daily infections since Dec. 6.
The cases were recorded with 29.9% of Covid-19 tests analyzed coming back positive, down from 30.7% a day earlier, the institute said.
At 29%, the majority of new cases were recorded in the coastal KwaZulu-Natal province, a popular destination for domestic tourists during the current summer holiday period, followed by the economic hub of Gauteng at 22%, the data showed. The two provinces make up almost 50% of South Africa’s economic output.
Covid-19 hospital admissions rose to 8,515 from 7,915 a day earlier, the NICD said in a separate report. The number of patients in need of intensive care remained unchanged at 6.7%.
The new variant accounted for 73% of all Covid-19 infections last week in the U.S., with almost all of the remaining cases being delta. President Joe Biden tested negative after spending time with an aide who was later found to be infected.
New Zealand delayed its border reopening due to omicron, while Australia’s prime minister said his country needed to live with the virus. A new study fueled concerns about the effectiveness of Sinopharm’s Covid-19 booster against the new variant.
2. Banks weary of cyber attacks:
The South African Banking Risk Information Centre (SABRIC) says its members, which includes major local banks, have been on high alert since early December because of a Java-related vulnerability that can make companies susceptible to cyberattacks.
The organisation, formed by the four major banks in SA to assist in combating organised bank-related crimes, said a globally reported vulnerability in the Java software, also known as Log4Shell or LogJa, can allow someone to take control of Java-based web servers and launch remote attacks on banks and other institutions.
“Since 9 December 2021, SABRIC’s member banks have been actively responding to the globally reported remote code vulnerability in the Apache Log4j 2 Java software,” said SABRIC in a statement.
The Apache Log4j 2 Java software vulnerability issue first came to light on 9 December. In other parts of the world, companies even took their websites offline to try to protect themselves against this vulnerability.
SABRIC CEO Nischal Mewalall said a response team was proactively monitoring the situation as banks investigate and take action. He added that thus far, local banks have not reported any compromises in customer data, applications and systems.
But SABRIC recommends that organisations running Apache Log4j urgently check for vulnerable versions in their applications.
3. State bank given deadlines:
The Postbank has been given a series of deadlines, starting in mid January, to get its house in order, including properly securing the cards it issues and setting up for disaster recovery.
Should it fail to get everything on the list done by December 2022, the Reserve Bank says, the Postbank risks “revocation” of its status as a designated clearing system participant in the National Payment System.
In 2020 the Postbank declared itself ready as South Africa’s “future state bank”, citing its participation in the National Payment System as a key advantage when it comes to establishing such a bank.
The Postbank started handling payments of social grants for the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) in 2018. Nearly a year later, “serious irregularities” were found on the Sassa-branded cards the bank had issued. It was given until April 2021 to sort things out – but failed to do so.
The Sunday Times later reported that the master encryption key for the cards had been printed and stolen at the Postbank’s Pretoria data centre, compromising the integrity of all 12 million issued cards, and any future cards issued using the same system.
On Friday, the Reserve Bank gazetted a “variation notice” under its authority as the regulator for the National Payment System, laying out exactly what is now required of the Postbank if it is to keep its clearing system participant status.
For starters, the Reserve Bank wants to see an implementation plan from the Postbank within a month, and it wants that plan signed by the chairperson of its board as well as its executive management. It then wants a monthly report (in the first week of each month) and a monthly meeting about that report (in the second week of each month) to discuss that report.
4. Economic recovery bleak:
Frustration is growing over the slow recovery of South Africa’s civil engineering and construction sector and its knock-on effects in the wider economy.
The government’s massive infrastructure expenditure is – in some quarters – also not expected to ease the industry’s plight.
This is despite the government in October unveiling the second tranche of the Sustainable Infrastructure Development Symposium South Africa (Sidssa) project pipeline comprising 55 new catalytic infrastructure projects valued at about R595 billion, which is anticipated to create an estimated 538 500 employment opportunities.
Industry Insight CEO Elsie Snyman said financing is unfortunately a problem for these projects, with 75% of the required investment not available “rendering the potential pipeline of projects, just another pie in the sky that sounds good on paper only”.
This is a reference to Minister of Public Works and Infrastructure Patricia de Lille’s admission when the second tranche of Sidssa projects were announced that there is a funding gap of about R441 billion for the 55 new projects being presented to the market.
South African Institution of Civil Engineering (Saice) president Vishal Krishandutt is concerned about the slow rollout of projects but believes “2022 holds potential for improved sector growth”.
“However, as 2021 draws to a close, frustrations grow over the slow recovery of the sector – and the knock-on effects to the wider economy. The sector saw a 20.3% contraction in 2020 and is expected to have grown just 6.2% in real terms this year,” he added.
Krishandutt said 2021 has been a watershed year for most South Africans, with many finding themselves in a situation they never thought they would be in a few years ago.
He said the rate of retrenchments and resignations was significantly higher, and many companies either closed their doors or opted for government bailouts in order to survive.
“The few infrastructure projects that went into construction during this time did not have a significant impact on the sector and the number of tenders advertised by government were very few,” said Krishandutt.
5. Crypto value grew by R24 trillion:
Cryptocurrencies were peerless conduits of greed and fear in 2021, alternately minting and wiping out fortunes as they swung wildly while adding some $1.5 trillion in overall market value along the way.
Bitcoin, up more than 60% this year, absorbed much of the attention but had to share more of the limelight with the likes of Ether and Binance Coin as well as meme tokens such as Dogecoin and Shiba Inu.
In fact, Bitcoin’s share of the crypto market shrank dramatically over 2021 as other tokens rocketed, a sign of how investor interest in digital assets broadened out despite — or perhaps because of — enormous volatility.
The decline in Bitcoin’s dominance will likely continue next year “given the explosion of assets in the crypto space and the various use cases,” said Vijay Ayyar, head of Asia Pacific with crypto exchange Luno in Singapore.
The overall market value of cryptocurrencies climbed by about $1.5 trillion in 2021 to some $2.3 trillion as of 17 December, according to tracker CoinGecko, which counts almost 12,000 tokens.
Bitcoin, the world’s largest cryptocurrency, began the year with a 70% share of the market.
That has fallen to less than 40%, in part as Ether’s popularity increased. But money has flowed into other tokens too, and for some that trend could be a sign of potentially destabilizing speculative froth.
Controversy over Bitcoin’s putative role in investment portfolios continues to rage.