Demystifying the science

Digital tools: mining the data

An African NPO combines traditional investigative reporting techniques with data analysis and geo-mapping to help track eco-offences

Assessment of eight coal mines in Mpumalanga showed pollution of both surface and underground water resources.
Photo: Oxpeckers

South Africa has laws and processes in place that cater for public participation in the environmental impact assessments (EIAs) needed before most new developments can go ahead, including mining. The problem is that many local residents affected by these developments struggle to access critical information about what is happening – often they have to read about them in small type on notices pinned to fences and trees, or in obfuscated newspaper advertisements.

At an Editors’ Lab Hackathon in 2013, a team from Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism, a non-profit organisation that combines traditional investigative reporting with data analysis and geo-mapping tools to expose eco-offences and track organised criminal syndicates in southern Africa, put together an innovative solution: build a digital app that would alert residents to developments happening in their neighbourhood. The app would enable users to search for new developments in their area, give inputs where appropriate, and register to receive alerts whenever new information became available.

This was the start of #GreenAlert, an open-source web and mobile platform that provides citizens with a simple tool to track EIAs and other land-use change notices, and that aims to stimulate public engagement, improve accountability and promote civic engagement through active citizenry. Based on the #GreenAlert project, Oxpeckers went on to build a similar initiative in the mining sector. Called #MineAlert, this app is a centralised tool for users to access, track, and share information and documents on mining applications and licences.

The first iteration was launched in April 2016, the second in 2018 expanded the platform to map risks posed to water resources by mining activities, and the third iteration, launched in August 2019, empowers users to track and share water-use licences approved for mining. Both tools are citizen-focused, web-based apps that aim to promote transparency and an informed citizenry. Using location-based  email alerts for development and mining applications, they also provide online access to important documents, such as environmental authorisations, and mining social and labour plans.

The ideal implementation of these platforms would be to update the data inputs via an API (application programming interface) linked to the relevant government departments. Oxpeckers are working on this option, and in the meantime populate the tools with data obtained under South Africa’s Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA), and information provided by users. Long-term impacts of the extractives industry, such as acid mine drainage, are adding to the problems of drought, water security and climate change across South Africa. Rural communities are usually the first to experience first- hand the negative impacts on freshwater resources.

“Since the platinum mine began operating in our area there’s been polluted water discharged into our rivers. Our livestock drink from there and are dying. Our community is angry,” tweeted one community member, Mathapelo Thobejane, during a recent #MineAlert community symposium. Most    communities affected by mining have no prior knowledge that a mine is planned in their area, what the conditions of related permits such as water-use licences are, or how to go about addressing negative impacts. They often don’t know how to seek redress when things go wrong, other than to become angry.

Goals for rehabilitating derelict and ownerless mines are often not met. Water pumped out of these abandoned mines leaches heavy metals, including aluminium, cadmium, iron, and manganese, into nearby water reserves and pollutes the quality and quantity of potable water. With these risks in mind, #MineAlert partnered with South Africa’s Water Research Commission (WRC) to develop simplified, user-friendly maps that pinpoint identified strategic freshwater areas most vulnerable to mining activities. The WRC had collated data on water systems, geology, mining activity and ecosystem vulnerability around South Africa, and built models to estimate risks posed to freshwater resources.

#MineAlert translated this complex data into a series of heat-map layers that provide instant visualisations of the risks to freshwater sources and ecosystems posed by mining activities. The visualisations span all mineral provinces, with a greater level of detail in areas where mining frequently takes place. As a country that is considered to be one of the driest countries per capita in the world, South Africa depends greatly on its strategic water source areas. These are natural “water factories”, supporting growth and development needs that are often situated far away.

Strategic water source areas (SWSAs) cover just 8% of the country’s surface but supply 50% of the annual runoff, according to the WRC. They supply 50% of the population with water, 64% of the economy and about 70% of the water that is used by agriculture. Although 21 SWSAs have been identified, only 11% of them receive formal protection. The #MineAlert Mining your Water map layer, launched in August 2019, drills down into granular data on priority freshwater resources to investigate the impacts of mining on those.

It pinpoints where water-use licences granted for mining project are situated in SWSAs – and shares the conditions that apply to the licences. Knowing what conditions and guidelines mining companies should adhere to in terms of water-use regulations is a useful way of tracking and understanding the impacts of mining on water resources, and of holding the companies involved to account. The need to monitor water-use applications and licences was emphasised by a recent Oxpeckers investigation that exposed sweeping water permit violations at mines across South Africa.

Based on data shared in parliament by the Department of Water and Sanitation, the article showed a radical increase in the number of mines flouting water-use regulations.holding the companies involved to account. The data Oxpeckers uses on its digital platforms is aggregated and analysed in journalistic investigations. For example, in 2015 Oxpeckers investigated whether the mining industry in South Africa was abiding by the undertakings that companies, by law, make to rehabilitate mines that are no longer in use.

Drawing on the mining licences data shared on #MineAlert, and working with other Oxpeckers team members, journalist Mark Olalde sourced and collated data on mine closures and the financial provisions for rehabilitation of end-of-life mines. He spent 21 months pestering government departments for information, formally submitting requests under the PAIA and travelling from pillar to post to secure the data.”Thursday mornings were for sitting in the office with a cup of freeze-dried, instant coffee,” Olalde recalls.

“#PAIAday, as I called this weekly ritual, was my method for prying as much formerly secret information as possible from the country’s Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) into the public domain. Between sips of coffee, I would call/email/pester every provincial DMR office on my list for the week.” Olalde then curated and analysed the datasets to produce a series of investigations on mine closure trust funds, financial provisions for rehabilitation and closure certificates, starting with ‘Mine closures: What’s happening in your backyard?’.

His second investigation, ‘Coal mines leave a legacy of ruin’, revealed that since at least 2011 no large coal mines operating in South Africa had been granted closure. This means the mines have not been rehabilitated and were simply abandoned, leaving a legacy of local and global pollution. The third and final investigation, ‘R60-billion held for mines that are never closed’ exposed “a failed system of mine closure in which there is little oversight, large mining house carry the brunt of responsibility for financial provisions that are never used and mines that are never fully closed”.

This work on mine closures not only liberated previously unseen datasets but has been discussed during parliamentary committee meetings and has resulted in the government amending the regulations pertaining to Financial Provision for Prospecting, Exploration, Mining or Productions Operations. The revised regulations will repeal and replace the Financial Provisioning Regulations of 2015 and include changes in the calculation of financial provisions.

The Department of Environmental Affairs is drafting new regulations to govern financial provisions for mine closures that could fundamentally transform how clean-ups are funded. Previously governed by the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act, financial guarantees and other aspects of mine closure now fall under the National Environmental Management Act. The new regulations come with more stringent requirements for transparency, including for auditing financial provisions, which are proposed to occur every three years and to include “independent specialists”.

Will rising temperatures make some areas uninhabitable for animals and humans? Will today’s coastal towns be under water in future? These are the type of questions scientists all over the world are trying to answer by predicting how local climates and the global climate will change over the next decades. Climate modelling is an incredibly complex science. Carefully generated algorithms that try to consider all the variables are fed into powerful computers that calculate how climates might change. The variables that influence the climate include things like how cloud cover affects sunlight penetration, how air flows over mountain ranges and across oceans, how the sun heats up different parts of land and sea at different rates, and how much pollution is in the air over different parts of the world.

Oxpeckers set about demystifying the science with ClimaTracker, a geojournalism tool that uses interactive maps and journalism to make complex climate modelling easily accessible. Its aims include working with civil society and government entities to inform vulnerable communities and to assist in strengthening their responsive capacity by reporting on both good and bad adaptive practices for building resilience.

Using heat maps based on climate modelling data generated by researchers at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), ClimaTracker features a temperature timeline that shows how much average temperatures have changed and are likely to change in the future. Farming maps, based on a climate model called ACRU developed by Professor Roland Schulze at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, show how these temperature increases will affect the average yearly primary production in different parts of South Africa over the next 100 years.

Food security is one of the biggest worries associated with climate change; what do rising temperatures and changes in agricultural production mean for the average household? Oxpeckers has created the ClimaTracker Food Basket Calculator to show the costs of climate change in real terms. The tool offers a gamified user experience that brings the message home by letting users calculate and compare their average food basket costs from year to year. Users select items they are most  likely to purchase in a shopping trip to get an idea of how much crop and animal product costs have increased, or decreased, over the year.

All this information is useful for journalists reporting on climate change, adaptation and food security. Again, using and linked to the data that powers the platforms, Oxpeckers created and published a series of related journalistic investigations.

Fiona MacLeod is a seasoned investigative environmental journalist who is pioneering the use of new media tools to expose eco-offences. She currently heads up Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism.


A clear and present threat

Climate change: perceptions and experiences

Although nearly 60% of Africans are aware of climate change, some of the continent’s most influential countries lag behind in widespread awareness

Across the continent, African citizens have begun to witness the consequences of climate change, driven by human industrialisation and the pursuit of economic growth. Climate change is a gradual process of average climate modification, which is what has made it difficult to track or detect based only on human personal experience. Every day we experience variations in temperature according to the time of day or season of the year. This makes it challenging for ordinary citizens to really comprehend the risks associated with a global average temperature change of 1.5 or 20C.

Factors that influence Africa’s vulnerability to climate change stem from its high dependence on natural resources, limited financial and institutional capacity, low GDP per capita and high levels of poverty. Employment in agriculture remains high across the continent; as of 2019 an average of 44% (of total employment) was in agriculture. The graph below provides the estimates for agricultural employment for African countries that have more than 40% of total employment in agriculture. Long-term temperature and rainfall variations will have a serious impact on the livelihoods of African citizens.

Agriculture remains an important economic activity for more than half the continent and will be a sector greatly affected by climate change. In the recent Afrobarometer Round 7 (2017- 18) Survey, “climate  change” was not identified as the most important problem respondents believed their government should address, although many respondents cited water supply (23%), food shortages (17%) and agriculture (9%) as urgent issues that needed to be addressed. Those responses are embedded in the issues that climate change poses for African citizens. Climate change will certainly have an impact on any developmental progress made in these areas by African governments.

Preparing for, and adapting to, the effects of climate change will require a coordinated effort across the continent. North Africa will witness a reduction in arable land and a shortening of crop-yielding seasons due to a predicted decrease in rainfall and increase in average surface temperature. Similarly, East Africa and southern Africa are regions sensitive to climate variability and most farming practices are dependent on seasonal rainfall. West Africa’s vulnerability also relates to climate-sensitive economic activities such as livestock rearing, rain-fed agriculture, fisheries and forestry.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that, under a high-emissions scenario, land temperatures over the African continent are likely to rise faster than the global land average. National governments are well aware of the risks climate change poses for future development on the continent, but under-resourced and fragmented institutional frameworks have caused most countries on the continent to be among the least prepared to adapt to climate change, according to the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative Index.

Building up resilience and capacity will require a coordinated effort by both national governments and their populations at large. Perceptions of climate change are arguably guided by national government and business rhetoric on the topic as well as by the personal experiences of ordinary citizens with regards to weather pattern variability. Afrobarometer’s Round 7 Survey conducted 45,823 interviews across 34 African countries, covering almost 80% of the continent’s population, between 2016 and 2018.

The survey included nine questions relating to climate change. The first question asked respondents to rate climate conditions compared to a decade ago; some 48% answered “worse” or “much worse”. An overwhelming majority of respondents from Uganda (85%), Malawi (81%) and Lesotho (79%) had witnessed worse weather conditions for agricultural activities. Only 23% of Mozambicans agreed that climate conditions had worsened, but this fieldwork was conducted prior to the devastating cyclones that hit the country in 2019.

Figure 3 indicates the distribution of respondents who had heard about climate change and believed they had experienced “worse” weather conditions over the past decade. Less than half of the South African citizens had heard about climate change and even fewer believed it had made weather conditions worse. Most ordinary citizens had heard of climate change, but opinions were mixed on whether it had made weather conditions worse.

Citizens were asked to rate whether extreme weather events such as drought or flooding had become “more” or “less” severe where they lived over the past decade. Almost half the respondents reported drought as being somewhat or much more severe, while 28% thought it had become less severe. Figure 4 shows the countries where drought has worsened. In early 2017 drought hit Uganda and its impact was felt most along its so- called “cattle corridors” and into its agricultural sectors. During this period, food insecurity rose to acute levels across most of the eastern and northern parts of Uganda.

The severity of flooding was similarly seen as much worse in both Uganda (73%) and Madagascar (67%), which could be closely linked to the increase in drought intensity. When examining the demographic splits for the continent, respondents living in rural areas were more likely to observe worse weather patterns than those living in urban areas. There was a similar contrast among age groups; respondents over the age of 56 were more likely to provide a more negative view of historical weather changes than the younger age groups.

Occupation also played a role in the kind of response citizens gave: six out of 10 respondents whose occupations were in agriculture, fishing or forestry observed worse or much worse climate conditions over the past decade. Exposure to news from any source was also associated with higher levels of awareness. However, those who got their daily news from either the internet or social media sources were much more likely to have heard of climate change. Part of being informed about climate change is understanding the meaning of the concept itself. Citizens were asked whether climate change meant negative, positive or other changes in weather patterns and on average two-thirds associated it with negative changes in the weather.

Figure 5 indicates whether those who had said “yes” to hearing about climate change had in fact an understanding of its negative effects on weather patterns. Zimbabwe stands out in that although most of their respondents had heard of climate change, only 31% thought it might be an adverse phenomenon. Among the continent’s most politically influential countries such as Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa, only around one in four citizens had a basic awareness of climate change. Overall, Africa’s perceptions of climate change lack any uniform pattern and awareness remains as varied as its natural environment.

Many countries are experiencing changes in their weather patterns and evidence suggests these are having a dire impact on farmers and food security. Although nearly 60% of Africans are at least aware of climate change on average, some of the continent’s biggest players lag behind in widespread awareness and understanding. Collective awareness and an understanding of climate change by ordinary citizens will be crucial when governments try  to adapt and mitigate its consequences for socio-economic development. Capacity building for early warning systems and mitigation strategies are important to assist those citizens who are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Monique Bennet is a senior researcher at Good Governance Africa. She has a keen interest in data science, data visualisation and statistics using the R programming language. Throughout her studies, research topics such as development, democracy and the environment within the context of developing countries have been her focus areas.

Leading from the front

Youth: their time is now

Young people are playing a crucial role in advancing climate action and climate justice

Elizabeth Wathuti
Photo: Raphael Obonyo

Climate change continues to threaten human existence, economic growth and the livelihoods of vulnerable populations, and experts predict that Africa will be struck more severely than most by the impact. Across the continent, young people are enraged about the lack of action on climate change and are demanding action and taking action. As United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres summed up in his speech at the G-7 Summit in August last year, 2015 to 2019 were the five hottest years on record. At the same time, according to the World Meteorological Organization, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere is the highest in human history.

The recent Special Report on 1.5°C (the impacts of 1.5°C global warming above pre-industrial levels) from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change summarised the scientific evidence. The report is in its findings: limiting unequivocal warming to 1.5°C requires major and immediate transformation across all sectors of society. There is a need to reduce annual emissions by half of their current level by 2030 if we are to have a chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C. According to Doug Ragan, UN Habitat’s Child and Youth specialist, “Climate change also threatens human security because it undermines the environment, livelihoods, communities and the ability of states to provide the conditions necessary for sustainable peace.

Young people’s voice, agency, and leadership have played a crucial role in advancing climate action and climate justice.” Indeed, young people in Africa are leading the way in the fight against climate change and stepping up to help their communities because they know the future depends on their actions. Adjany Costa, a 29-year-old environmentalist agrees that youth innovation and energies are essential in the fight against climate change. She has been at the forefront in demanding conservation of precious water and biodiversity hotspots in Angola. Her efforts have not gone unnoticed; in 2019 she received the young Champion of the Earth award from the UN Environment Programme.

In Ghana, Kwabena Danso, young entrepreneur and founder of Boomers International Ltd, is working with other young people on a project that encourages bamboo farming. Currently they work with more than 200 rural farmers to get them into bamboo agroforestry, which will empower them economically, protect the environment (bamboo improves soil fertility and absorbs more carbon than any other plant) and at the same time, provide the company with a sustainable supply of raw materials for making bicycles. Bamboo can therefore support a healthy, non-polluting form of alternative transport, meeting growing mobility needs while addressing climate change, environmental degradation, poverty, and high unemployment among young people.

Adjany Costa Photo: Raphael Obonyo

As Danso says, all we have is one world and we have no option than to protect it – this is the mandate of the youth of our time. Young Africans are making change happen, through their activism and also through their jobs and livelihoods. Another example is Alhaji Siraj Bah, a 20-year-old activist from Sierra Leone, who has set up an enterprise making biodegradable paper bags from banana fibres. He started his company with just $20, with the aim of combating plastic pollution, deforestation, air pollution, improper waste management and youth unemployment. His company, Rugsal, also produces smokeless, long-lasting and affordable briquettes from coconut waste.

There is no doubt that young people in Africa are charting the future as they help their communities adapt to the climate changes already happening. In Kenya, young people like Elizabeth Wathuti are mobilising to create a positive environmental impact. Wathuti, 24, founded the Green Generation Initiative in 2016 to address global environmental challenges such as deforestation, pollution and environmental injustices. She has organised a number of tree planting activities, including clean-ups and environmental education activities, all the while increasing awareness of the environmental challenges created by climate change.

Growing up in Nyeri county, a Kenyan region known for its beautiful forests, in a village where  planting  trees and drinking from clean streams was the norm, she connected with nature at a young age. Her first act as an environmental activist was planting her a tree when she was seven years old, inspired by the late Nobel Laureate Professor Wangari Maathai, who at that time was the Member of Parliament in her home region, Tetu. “Many people say that Africa will be the hardest hit by the impacts of the climate crisis, but the reality is that Africa has already had to go through a lot of challenges as the reality of the climate crisis has already hit home,” she says.

Kwabena Danso Photo: Raphael Obonyo

“It is not a future concern; it is about now, and things will only get worse for us if global action is not taken.” Through her organisation, Wathuti gives children and young people practical environmental education, greening and So far, she has trained and nurtured more than 20,000 children in different schools across Kenya, encouraging them to love nature and be conscious of the environment at a young age and their role in addressing the ongoing climate crisis. The adopt-a-tree campaign has helped inculcate a tree growing culture among people, especially children. Out of the more than 30,000 trees they have planted in schools, including fruit trees, thus far, 99% have survived.

Wathuti believes that the impact the campaign will have is not the number of trees planted so much as the number that will reach maturity. “We have a critical role to play as young people – and we must do all we can to tackle climate change,” says Charlot Magayi, the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Kenyan-based Mukuru Clean Stoves, a social enterprise that recycles waste metal to produce improved, efficient cooking stoves. Magayi partners with local women business owners to distribute to the last mile. “The stove’s ventilation is improved to ensure toxic smoke emissions are reduced by 70%,” she says.

In Uganda, Leah Namugerwa, a 15-year-old climate activist and student has been striking every Friday for greater action on climate change, plastic pollution and more. Also, she’s started the Birthday Trees initiative, encouraging people to celebrate their birthdays by planting trees. At the UN Habitat’s World Urban Forum in Abu Dhabi in February this year, Namugerwa led young people gathered at the Youth Assembly to demand urgent and substantive action on the climate crisis. “Adults are not willing to offer leadership,” Namugerwa told the gathering, “so I offer myself.”

As Ovais Sarmad, the Deputy Executive Secretary of UN Climate Change, has remarked, young people have brought a breath of fresh air to the ongoing conversation about climate change: they continue to remind leaders of the need for urgency the world faces and of the imperative to work towards a cleaner and greener future.


Raphael Obonyo is a public policy analyst. He’s served as a consultant with the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA). An alumnus of Duke University, he has authored and co-authored numerous books, including Conversations about the Youth in Kenya (2015). He is a TEDx fellow and has won various awards.

Rethinking Public Healthcare Systems In Africa: a Covid-19 reflection

‘The right to life’ is fundamental; an imprescriptible right inherent to all human beings. The Equity and Human Rights Commission states that governments should take appropriate measures to safeguard life by “taking steps to protect you if your life is at risk.” With public healthcare in Africa suffering chronic shortages of critical drugs, medical brain-drain, insufficient public healthcare funding, as well as inadequate pharmaceutical production, are African governments taking appropriate measures to safeguard citizens’ lives?

Approximately 80% of Africans in the middle-income bracket, and below, rely on public health facilities. Leading killers on the continent, often described as ‘the big three’ include malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. Important to note (as per the figure below) is the transition over recent years to lifestyle diseases like obesity and diabetes. Approximately 50% of under-five deaths in Africa are caused by pneumonia, diarrhoea, measles, HIV, tuberculosis and malaria.


Source: Monique Bennett ©, Good Governance Africa


According to the International Finance Corporation, health care in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) exhibits the worst performance in the world, with few countries able to spend the $34 to $40 a year per person that the World Health Organization (WHO) considers the minimum for basic health care. Africa’s capacity for pharmaceutical research and development, as well as local drug production, still has a long way to go. Fewer than 40 out of 54 African states have some level of pharmaceutical production.

Most African countries rely on imported pharmaceutical ingredients. The implication may be that citizens will not have access to affordable locally manufactured medicines as prohibitively expensive imports dominate the markets. Another implication is that the shortages of medicines in some public healthcare facilities like local clinics mean that they will often refer sick patients to larger hospitals for basic medicine. This creates a bottleneck at these larger facilities and diverts resources away from their core focus, the very opposite of what should be happening in system-governance terms.

Beyond the medicine shortages and bottleneck problems, several other factors inhibit access to health care, one of which is access to skilled personnel. A brain-drain of homegrown doctors migrating abroad amplifies the pre-existing challenges. Another factor is the sheer under-allocation of resources towards healthcare. Current health expenditure as a percentage of GDP for SSA sits at 5.2% compared with a global average of 9.9%. Compounding the situation, corruption often diverts the little that is allocated away from where it is needed most.

The WHO defines having access to health as having medicines continuously available and affordable at facilities that are within one hour’s walk of the population. To this effect, mobile healthcare services have seen success in some parts of Africa, particularly in remote rural areas.

More research and deliberation are needed on how the major differences between Africa, America, Europe and Asia might matter. Thus far there has been no technical guidance on how African governments should approach their considerably different contexts. The advice is often the same globally while the context is not. African governments should focus on designing tailor-made public healthcare strategies in confronting C-19, for example, subject to each country’s unique demographic and socio-economic characteristics:  “[F]ailure to recognise that one size does not fit all could have lethal consequences in this region, maybe even more lethal than those of the virus itself.”

Sustainable Development Goal 3 calls for the promotion of healthy living and the well-being of all. Countries have committed to ensuring healthy lives and promoting wellbeing for all as well as achieving a range of health targets by 2030. What role should African governments and partners play to support the continent in achieving set targets?

First, a re-allocation of expenditure towards investing in healthcare personnel could contribute to the reduction of brain-drain of homegrown doctors. On average, according to the WHO, 39% of African health budgets are spent on medical products, while expenditure on the health workforce (14%) and infrastructure (7%) is low. An analysis of spending patterns suggests that countries with well-performing health systems invest up to 40% on the health workforce and 33% on infrastructure.

Second, performance (efficiency) has to be improved. In the same WHO report mentioned above, performance is described as an integrated measure of a country’s ability to improve access to services, quality of care, community demand for services and resilience to outbreaks. In SSA, performance is poor across all these dimensions, but particularly in the areas of ensuring access to services and resilience to outbreaks. Precarious health systems are not able to withstand shocks such as disease outbreaks, evidenced by the C-19 pandemic. This is a function of a combination of funding shortages, sub-optimal resource allocation and corruption. The people, institutions and resources needed to deliver health related services are only performing at 49% of their potential capacity.

Third, the pandemic has exposed gaps in health services that require urgent attention in many African countries. A lack of access to testing (along with results backlogs) are hampering efforts to save lives. While many African countries responded swiftly by enacting measures to slow the spread of the pandemic, many also lack the capacity to test for C-19, isolate people with confirmed or suspected cases, trace contacts, and treat those with severe illness. The economic impacts, too, of swift responses were arguably not sufficiently considered.

What matters most for effective C-19 treatment is ICU/oxygenation availability. The global data strongly suggests that economic interventions (lockdowns and/or bans on alcohol, etc.) make little difference – on a log scale, the infection rate is almost exactly the same shape over time in every context. This suggests that optimal responses are those that effectively communicate the message of social distancing and invest in oxygen capacity for those most badly afflicted, but do not shut down economies.

While African governments urgently address the demands of the Covid-19 pandemic, they should simultaneously address co-morbidities (particularly diseases presenting with a cough or fever, along with diabetes). Given the known influence of clinical activity and health seeking behaviour on TB and HIV detection, primary healthcare staff need to be alert for these conditions during the C-19 pandemic. Undetected TB and HIV will exacerbate the C-19 death count.

Finally, an extensive opportunity cost associated with governance responses to pandemics is “C-19-diversion” (resources allocated to C-19 at the expense of other important burdens that suddenly appear less urgent because of the novelty of pandemics). Diabetes and cancer treatments are among the casualties of this diversion. Diabetes is the co-morbidity most strongly associated with C-19 deaths. African governments should, therefore, urgently invest in eliminating it, for instance through removing taxes on nutritious foods and imposing high taxes on refined carbohydrates. More efficient C-19 testing, combined with efforts to reduce co-morbidities, will likely lead to better future healthcare outcomes.

During and beyond the C-19 pandemic, African governments should re-think their public healthcare systems and tailor-make them to serve their unique contexts, bringing the healthcare element of the right to life front and centre in their policies and programmes to improve citizens’ lives.

This article originally appeared in Business Day


Christine Dube is the Lead Researcher of our Governance Insights & Analytics programme. She completed her Bachelor of Social Sciences degree in Industrial, Organisational and Labour Studies in 2011, her Honours in Commerce in 2012, and her Master of Commerce at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in 2013. Her experience includes risk analysis, finance, administration as well as marketing and sales. Her interests include monitoring economic and social developments.

#ZimbabweanLivesMatter: Can South Africa get it right this time?

Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa announced during a press briefing, that his government has postponed independence day celebrations and discouraged locals from travelling to all affected countries, even though the country has no detected cases so far of the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Harare on March 17, 2020. (Photo by Jekesai NJIKIZANA / AFP)


Amid a spiralling economic and political crisis, President Emmerson Mnangagwa addressed the people of Zimbabwe on Tuesday 4 August. His speech, although sudden – four days after his government’s violent  clampdown on the July 31 citizen protests – was highly anticipated. There may have been a desperate hope in some sections of the bruised citizenry that the president would, perhaps in the remotest of ways, acknowledge their suffering and hint at atoning for the state’s brutality. However, the ‘crocodile’ neither acknowledged the legitimacy of the widespread grievances against his leadership nor took any responsibility for bringing the country to this precipice. Instead, President Mnangagwa argued that his administration “has been undermined by the divisive politics of the opposition, sanctions, cyclones, droughts and now COVID19”, and blamed widespread protests on “a few rogue Zimbabweans acting in league with foreign detractors.” The President’s speech exposed a tone deaf and intransigent government at war with its long-suffering citizens.

For the past two decades Zimbabwean citizens have engaged in diverse, valiant efforts to use every legally available avenue to expedite democratic reform. Many Zimbabwean citizens have made heroic efforts to shed light on the gross corruption and mismanagement that has characterised ZANU-PF’s rule and created a staggering man-made disaster. They are currently caught between a regime willing to go to any lengths to crackdown on dissent, the need to navigate the day-to-day difficulties of securing precarious livelihoods, and the fear of contracting COVID-19. In the face of an unrelenting regime and rising from the crushed hopes of 31 July 2020 protests, Zimbabwean citizens have grafted the #ZimbabweanLivesMatter campaign onto ‘the energy and anger of the global’ outcry that #BlackLivesMatter. Can the South African government, whose President has taken  an unequivocal stance on #BlackLivesMatter continue on an indeterminate posture on the plight of its neighbour’s black lives? Their economic and political fate, as aptly observed by SAIIA CEO Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, is intertwined with its own and that of the region.

South Africa is ideally placed to push for change in Zimbabwe, with the two countries sharing many social, political, and economic ties. South Africa remains one of the country’s most important trading partners. Zimbabwe imports 40 percent of its total imports and exports 75 percent of its total exports to South Africa. However, despite the countries’ growing stake in each other’s fates, South Africa’s response to the deepening crisis across the Limpopo leaves much to be desired. Zimbabwe is now considered one of the four most food-insecure countries in the world, alongside Yemen, Somalia and South Sudan. More than 60 percent of Zimbabwe’s 15.6 million people are considered food insecure. Around one in three children under 5 years old suffer from stunted growth as a result of chronic malnutrition. The country has the highest inflation rate in the world at around 800 percent, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) projects economic contraction of 10.4 percent in 2020, following a 12.8 percent contraction in 2019.

The healthcare system has collapsed, and every day Zimbabwean citizens face persistent fuel shortages and rolling blackouts. The number of Zimbabweans using illegal entry points along the Limpopo River to access medical services and basic commodities has dramatically increased in recent weeks,  heightening the chances of cross-border transmission of COVID-19 in both directions. As many desperate Zimbabweans will make the dangerous journey south, the South African government is poorly prepared to deal with an escalating migrant crisis. The country is wrestling with its own record unemployment levels. Increasingly, regional integration and the flow of people, commodities, knowledge and information means that insecurity anywhere is a threat to security everywhere, challenging the principle of non-interference which has guided foreign relations between southern African states and become institutionalized in the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Decades of  non-interference, liberation politics, and ‘quiet diplomacy’ on behalf of the ANC has simply allowed a political and military elite in Zimbabwe to plunder the country’s resources, undermine democracy, and create an economic crisis with implications for the wider Southern African region.

A more urgent and concrete stance is imperative. It is befitting therefore that after what had seemed like another bout of silence, the Government of South Africa, through the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) ‘noted with concern the reports related to human rights violations in the Republic of #Zimbabwe’. However, from the Mbeki to Zuma administrations, this political gesturing is well-worn. Building on #ZimbabweanLivesMatter, a campaign that has attracted resounding regional and international intervention calls from ordinary citizens, celebrities, politicians, diplomats and multi-lateral institutions alike, it is now ‘easier for SA and the SADC to begin a meaningful engagement with all stakeholders’. But will they? South Africa in particular has an opportunity as a strategic arbiter to harness all these voices across multiple platforms that can begin the work of persuading stakeholders to come to the negotiating table. It is time for the South African government to boldly break out of the ‘liberation war-pact’ cocoon and stand with the citizens of Zimbabwe.

DIRCO’s emphasis on government to government engagement, reported to have been initiated through a telephonic call between Dr. Naledi Pandor and her Zimbabwean counterpart Dr. Sibusiso Moyo, seems to thwart any hopes for including citizen voices. Dr. Pandor’s non-committal reference to ‘South Africa’s readiness to assist if requested’ does not imbue confidence of a radical departure from previous administrations. President Mnangagwa’s 4 August speech and Government Spokesperson Nick Mangwana’s press release (two days later) declaring reports of human rights violations as ‘false’ are not a request for assistance. South Africa now needs to build the diplomatic muscle required to crack through Harare’s hardball defence. Through the #ZimbabweanLivesMatter campaign, the Zimbabwean citizens’ request for assistance has been unambiguously echoed and clearly endorsed regionally and globally. As well noted by the Executive Director of Good Governance Africa, Chris Maroleng, ‘…it is incumbent on…especially…government… in South Africa to stand up and basically call on the government of Zimbabwe to cease and desist from such anti-democratic behaviour.’ South Africa has a unique opportunity to get it right this time. Many are ready to assist.

This article originally appeared in Business Day.


Sikhululekile Mashingaidze currently serves as Senior Researcher in the Human Security and Climate Change (HSCC) project at Good Governance Africa. Being engaged as a part-time enumerator for Mass Public Opinion Institute’s diversity of research projects during her undergraduate years ushered her into and nurtured her passion for the governance field. She has worked with Habakkuk Trust, Centre for Conflict Resolution(CCR-Kenya), Mercy Corps Zimbabwe and Action Aid International Zimbabwe, respectively. This has, over the years, enriched her grassroots and national level governance projects’ implementation and management experience. Her academic research interests are in the field of genocide studies with a commitment to deepen her understanding of girls and women’s experiences, their agency in reconstituting everyday life and their inclusion in peace-building and transitional justice processes. Socially she has a keen commitment in supporting girls education, women’s economic empowerment and the fulfilment of their equitable and sustainable development in Africa’s underserved, often hard to reach communities. She enjoys writing and telling the stories of navigating everyday life.