News in South Africa 22nd September:

1. Delta variant only variant of concern:

The World Health Organisation says that the delta variant of Covid-19 has all but wholly replaced most other variants of concern in testes samples across the world, with the alpha, beta and gamma variants only turning up in around one percent of samples, each.

Delta variant only variant of concern
Image taken by: Ivan Samkov

Delta “has become more fit, it is more transmissible and it is out-competing, it is replacing the other viruses that are circulating,” she told a WHO social media live interaction, adding that Delta had been detected in more than 185 countries to date.

All viruses mutate over time, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes COVID-19 disease.

During late 2020, the emergence of variants that posed an increased risk to global public health prompted the WHO to start characterising them as variants of interest, and the more-worrying variants of concern, to inform the response to the pandemic.

The UN health agency decided to name the variants after the letters of the Greek alphabet, to avoid the countries that first detected them being stigmatised.

Besides the four variants of concern, there are also five variants of interest, but Van Kerkhove said three of them – Eta, Iota and Kappa – were now being downgraded to variants under monitoring.

Following the global trend, delta samples in South Africa also make up >99% of tests done, according to local experts. The beta variant, first discovered in South Africa, has not been detected for months.

2. Retail stores pay covid grants:

On Wednesday, 22 September, retail stores will for the first time make cash payments to beneficiaries of South Africa’s R350 special relief of distress (SRD) grants linked to Covid-19.

The Pick n Pay group said on Tuesday that its stores, including those under the Boxer brand, would handle payments at till points, much as they do with pension, disability, and child-care grants on behalf of the SA Social Security Agency (Sassa).

The grant was initially intended as a short-lived emergency measure, to alleviate the pressure of lockdowns related to Covid-19. It is now touted as a pilot study of sorts for a basic income grant (BIG), with calls for it to be considerably hiked to R585 a month.

The recent Green Paper on Comprehensive Social security and Retirement Reform – since disavowed by the government – proposed a universal basic income grant, on the basis that it would be logistically easy to roll out in a matter of months, while a means-tested conditional grant would be much harder to handle.

That raises the prospects that every South African would receive a monthly payment, with many millions likely to seek payment in cash. And that, in turn, has retailers hoping to see some of that money spent in their stores watching the process closely.

“Beneficiaries should note that Pick n Pay and Boxer do not manage the application and approval of grant funds, or when and where collections can be made. This is a process run entirely by Postbank,” said Pick n Pay in a statement. 

“Only grant recipients who have received an SMS from SASSA confirming their collection pay-out point as either Pick n Pay or Boxer can use the new collections points.”

Recipients are required to take their identity documents and cellphones to till points. Entering their ID numbers will trigger a USSD message on their phones, which they must approve, before the money will be handed over. 

3. Civil construction confidence improves:

Confidence in the civil construction sector improved marginally in the third quarter of 2021 but more than 80% of respondents to the FNB-Bureau for Economic Research (BER) civil confidence index are dissatisfied with prevailing business conditions.

The index, which has been hovering around the 20-point mark since the middle of 2017, rose by four points on a 100-point index to 17 in Q3.

FNB-BER reported that most underlying indicators worsened in the quarter, which explains the relative pessimism.

The slowdown in activity and profitability and persistently weak order books is of particular concern, FNB-BER said.

FNB senior economist Siphamandla Mkhwanazi said on Tuesday the underlying indicators relating to activity and profitability justifies the continued pessimism in the sector.

Mkhwanazi said the sustained low confidence was underpinned by a slowdown in construction activity.

Tendering competition eased somewhat but this was insufficient to offset the adverse effect of the lower activity on profitability, which deteriorated and also likely “kept a lid on confidence”.

Mkhwanazi said the lack of new work also remains a concern, with a very high percentage of respondents continuing to bemoan the lack of new construction demand.

4. Nersa approves Power ships:

Energy regulator Nersa has approved three licences for power ships in South Africa – a controversial move, given the legal battle surrounding the matter.

In a meeting on Tuesday afternoon (21 September), the energy regulator said that the generation licences have been approved for Saldanha Bay, Coega and Richards Bay.

In the same meeting, Nersa approved generating licences for four other energy producers under its Risk Mitigation Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (RMIPPPP) scheme.

South African lawmakers still plan to probe the country’s emergency power procurement program, the bulk of which was won by Turkey’s Karpowership.

A program and terms of reference will be drawn up by the Mineral Resources and Energy Portfolio Committee its chairman Zet Luzipo said on Tuesday.

Gwede Mantashe, the energy minister, will be the first to testify and DNG Energy, a losing bidder that has filed a lawsuit alleging corruption in the process, will also be invited to speak, he said.

The tender aims to provide South Afirca with about 2,000 megawatts of power by August next year and is yet to be finalized as the date for so-called financial close has been extended by two months until the end of September.

The appointment of Karpowership, which produces power from gas-fired plants mounted on ships, as a preferred bidder has been challenged by DNG and environmentalists.

The Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse is demanding to know why the Karpowership generation licenses were approved.

OUTA says it finds it unacceptable that the energy regulator can approve the generation licenses but fail to provide the public with reasons.

It says these reasons are required should the decision be challenged in court.

During the recent public comment period, OUTA submitted formal submissions to Nersa opposing the Karpowership licenses.

Meanwhile, Karpowership South Africa has thanked Nersa for approving its generation licences.

5. Controversial Mining BEE ruling:

The Pretoria High Court has ruled that once a mining company is empowered, it is always empowered. It also found that the minister of mineral resources and energy is not empowered to make law. This is a judicial smackdown of note against the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy, with an adverse cost finding to boot.

The Minerals Council South Africa, the mining sector’s main industry body, has been embroiled in legal proceedings with the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) over aspects of the 2018 Mining Charter. The Minerals Council has been seeking to have several of its provisions set aside. 

On Tuesday the Pretoria High Court did just that. One of the key areas of contention was the issue of “once empowered, always empowered”. 

What it boils down to is this: the mining industry has argued that once a company has met the threshold for black ownership of 26% as laid out in previous charters, or 30% for new mining right applications, that holds – even if the empowerment-holders subsequently sell their stake. 

The government’s view seems to be that such ownership targets remain in perpetuity, so a company would have to keep upping its BEE ownership stakes, generally at considerable cost. The point here is that this muddles policy and is a deterrent to investment. 

In the judgment, various clauses of the 2018 charter were set aside, including those that seemed to cast the BEE ownership requirement in unmoving stone. It also found that the 2004 Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act does not empower the minister to make law.  

All information sourced from articles posted by: EWN, Business Insider, Moneyweb, BusinessTech, ENCA, and Daily Maverick.

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