News in South Africa 31st August:
1. New Covid variant in SA:
Researchers are investigating a new variant with multiple mutations in South Africa.
The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) has reported the identification of a potential variant of interest called C.1.2.
The NICD said that the lineage was first found in the country during the third wave in May this year.
It said that the Delta variant continued to cause the majority of infections in the country.
Professor Penny Moore said that the C.1.2. was at a low frequency currently – between 2% and 3% of infections – but this was gradually increasing month by month and that it was for this reason that they were watching the situation closely.
“It is doing to some extent what Delta did at the beginning of the second wave. It’s impossible, it’s crystal ball stuff and we’ve learned not to predict what variants do. We are watching it carefully, we are counting the number of genomes, we are counting where the genomes are.”
Moore said they did not have much hard data at present on this specific variant but there’s a lot of data on other variants.
“Some of these mutations are mutations that we know and we know the effect and durations on the virus and despite the increased mutations in this variant, the vaccines that we have will still protect against severe disease.”
Principal medical scientist at the NICD, Dr Jinal Bhiman, said that the C.1.2. was a variant of concern as it had mutations that were shared with other variants.
“Yes it is a variant but it is not yet a variant of concern or a variant of interest but it has the potential to become one. It will really only become one when it is more widely dispersed.”
Professor Adrian Puren said that regardless of the variant at this stage, there was no real need to reconsider the current lockdown restrictions.
Covid-19 Stats (as of 31st August):
In South Africa, there have been 5,644 new cases of Covid-19, taking the total reported to 2,770,575. Deaths have reached 81,830 (+235), while recoveries have climbed to 2,533,956, leaving the country with a balance of 154,789 active cases. The total number of vaccines administered is 12,289,478 (+267,870).
2. UAE travel ban lifted:
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has started processing tourist visas for fully vaccinated South Africans, dropping an outright travel ban which was first imposed in January.
South Africans are now able to travel to the UAE, provided they are fully vaccinated with one of the Covid-19 vaccines approved by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The UAE initially banned travel from South Africa following the detection of the Beta variant which led to heightened global restrictions.
The UAE’s National Emergency Crisis and Disasters Management Authority (NCEMA) confirmed on Saturday that “tourist visa applications will be open to people from all countries” – provided they are fully vaccinated – including those arriving from previously banned countries.
But this good news was quickly overshadowed by word that South Africans were still limited to transiting through the UAE and would not be allowed to enter the country, even if fully vaccinated. This was the response to social media queries given by the UAE’s national carrier, Emirates, which, until recently, was only operating passenger flights to – but not from – Johannesburg.
“Passengers travelling from South Africa cannot travel to Dubai as their final destination, but are allowed to transit in Dubai.,” Emirates said on Sunday evening.
This caused confusion among South African travellers looking to enter the UAE and was reminiscent of earlier announcements regarding fully vaccinated visitors which had been reversed.
Emirates has since clarified its position and confirmed that “SA citizens will be able to visit Dubai”. The airline didn’t share any more details at the time, but said it would update customers later in the week.
3. Backlash over mandatory social security plan:
The Department of Social Development asked for comment around its green paper on Comprehensive Social Security and Retirement Reform – and got it loud and fast.
Of the more than 17 000 comments received by participative democracy platform Dear South Africa, 99% were against what many perceive as yet another tax on a war-weary middle class.
“I think the pushback against this green paper is about as furious as we’ve seen on any campaign we have run,” says Dear South Africa campaign director Rob Hutchinson. “It’s an indicator of how out of touch the government is with the general population. However, it should be borne in mind that this is a green paper and still has to go through a lot of regulatory hoops before this becomes law – which it may not do.”
The green paper proposes setting up a new National Social Security Fund (NSSF) into which employers and employees will have to pay up to 12% of their earnings, with a ceiling of R276 000 per year or R2 760 per month. “This payment will be mandatory, effectively a tax. South African workers will not be able to opt out of paying into this state-run fund,” says the Institute of Race Relations (IRR).
The plan amounts to State Capture 2.0 and will feed the ruling party’s patronage networks by allowing corrupt politicians to tap into large pools of private savings “while providing opportunities to create jobs for pals and family members in the enormous new bureaucracies that will have to be established for nationalising private pensions into the NSSF”.
The Efficient Group’s chief economist Dawie Roodt says the proposal outlined in the green paper is a move in the right direction by trying to consolidate existing systems such as the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF), social security grants and the South African Revenue Service (Sars), but that the green paper implies an increase in taxes, with the state handing itself more powers to force working South Africans to save, while granting politicians more power over our savings.
What’s needed is massive job creation to reduce the number of people relying on social security (who now outnumber those who have jobs).
“A job is still the best form of security” says Dr Stephen Smith, senior policy advisor at the Association for Savings and Investment SA (Asisa).
“Social security is a safety net when all else fails.”
4. New changes planned for schools:
The government is looking to make several changes at schools in South Africa to make up for lost teaching time, says Basic Education minister Angie Motshekga.
While the department initially expected that rural schools would face the most difficulties in returning, Motshekga said that the inverse has actually been the case as the country’s more urban areas and overpopulated schools face a greater challenge with spacing.
The minister said that schools in more rural areas actually faced fewer learning losses during the worst of the pandemic, despite initial concerns about resources, as teachers were better able to assist a smaller cohort of learners
Motshekga said that her department was hopeful that the following changes will help make up for lost teaching time:
- Revised social distancing requirements, allowing more learners per classroom;
- Mobile classrooms to boost capacity;
- Introducing alternative teaching places that allow for more spacing;
- Hiring more teacher assistants;
- The government no longer allowing teachers to work from home due to co-morbidities;
- More teachers electing to take a Covid-19 vaccine.
Motshekga reiterated that the school calendar will not be changed in October, despite the lost teaching time, following complaints from both parents and teachers.
She said that teachers needed a break after being placed under severe pressure by the rotational timetable. At the same time, some parents had already made holiday plans for the October break period.
In a media briefing on Sunday (29 August), the minister said that lost teaching time would instead have to be recovered on a school or district level, though this must also be “within reason”.
5. New cannabis bill:
Parliament’s Justice Committee has started three days of hearings into South Africa’s new cannabis bill, which was drafted after private use of the plant was decriminalised in 2018.
The new draft bill outlines possession rules for users and people who wish to cultivate it – however, points of contention remain.
One of the key hangups is that the buying and selling of cannabis seeds, oils and the plant itself remain illegal, arguably making the private use freedoms moot.
The Health Department has made presentations in Parliament backing the bill.