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Leadership hopeful warns South African opposition to include black majority

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South Africa’s main opposition Democratic Alliance must refocus on the country’s black majority if it is to mount a credible challenge to the ruling African National Congress, according to the first black woman to contest the party leadership.

Mbali Ntuli, 32, would be only the second black leader in the troubled liberal party’s 20-year history if she is chosen in a vote by party officials and some members this month.

She told the Financial Times she was “absolutely focused” on boosting the DA’s black vote and ending infighting that has left President Cyril Ramaphosa’s ANC without strong opposition amid economic turmoil in Africa’s most industrialised nation.

Unless the party became a broader church, it would fail to revive its fortunes. “The DA is going to do the same thing over and over again, because we’re producing the same leaders, believing South Africans are going to look at us differently,” she said.

The leadership contest has unleashed a debate about race in a party mainly supported by white voters and other ethnic minorities but which became a real threat to the ANC as it began to attract black votes in the decade of misrule under previous president Jacob Zuma.

It gained more than a quarter of the vote in 2016 local elections — its biggest electoral success in two decades — while coalition agreements gave it control of big cities outside its Western Cape heartland for the first time.

But in last year’s general election, held after Mr Ramaphosa ousted Mr Zuma, the party’s vote share fell to a fifth, including only four per cent of black voters as Mr Ramaphosa stabilised the ANC’s support. Acrimony over the result led to the exit of Mmusi Maimane, the party’s first black leader. The DA also lost control of cities including Johannesburg and Pretoria as other parties withdrew support.

However, with Mr Ramaphosa seen as falling short on his pledge to clean up corruption and revive an economy that has been further battered by the coronavirus pandemic, Ms Ntuli is sensing a chance to rebuild. At 54 per cent, the ANC’s share of the vote last year was its lowest ever, indicating black voters are looking elsewhere.

“The ANC is not going to be able to sustain what it has got right now,” Ms Ntuli said. “Whenever you have that kind of change, there is an opportunity for something better.”

Ms Ntuli is seen as a long shot to win the leadership. She is standing against John Steenhuisen, who became the party’s interim chief after Mr Maimane’s resignation and who is backed by senior party figures.

The DA leadership contest was about “restoration versus adventure”, said Ralph Mathekga, an independent political analyst.

Mr Steenhuisen favoured an “old guard” who were inclined to shore up the party’s traditional white vote, while Ms Ntuli appealed to a broader range of voters, he said. But she lacked internal party support.

Under Mr Steenhuisen, the party has dropped its support for racial redress policies aimed at achieving greater black ownership of the economy. It said the policies benefited a narrow ANC elite and that it instead believed in “rejection of race as a way to categorise and treat people, particularly in legislation”.

But Ms Ntuli said the DA risked “putting ourselves in a corner” by seeming to minimise the racial character of South Africa’s inequality.

“I can’t see how we win strategically when we have to go out on the ground and tell someone whose child has died in a pit toilet, or who waits for seven hours in a queue at a clinic, or who can’t access funding for [university], that they are in that situation because they didn’t work hard, or life was hard,” she said. “They believe they’re in it because they’re black.”

Her life story, rooted in the ANC heartland of KwaZulu-Natal in the south-east of the country and the struggle of black people to take part in the economy, meant she could express the “lived realities” of black voters, said Ms Ntuli. She understood the pressures of “being a black female in a South Africa that is changing, that is patriarchal . . . being someone who has got aunts and uncles who couldn’t get into school, who rely on me for money”.

Ms Ntuli’s father built a taxi empire as white minority rule crumbled in the 1990s. But he died of malaria after fleeing to Mozambique as the industry was hit by violent turf wars in the turbulent early years of democracy. As a child, Ms Ntuli was caught up in assassination attempts targeting her mother in conflicts over her father’s business.

The leadership candidate said she had joined the DA because it had showed kindness to her family and sought to unite South Africans. It could be that party again, she said.

Ms Ntuli’s bid has highlighted the continued malaise in the DA. She has alleged a culture of fear allows senior leaders to use internal disciplinary hearings to silence dissent — something rivals have denied.

Ms Ntuli said she was seeking to break “a sense of ownership about who can talk about the DA”.

“And we know where that route ends up,” she said. “We’ve seen the ANC, we’ve seen basically every other liberation movement in Africa [clamp down on dissenting voices].”



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A harrowing brush with Covid as India is ravaged

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As a foreign correspondent, my job is to tell India’s stories, not be part of them. But when I started feeling feverish while writing an article about Covid-19 vaccine policy last month, I had a gut feeling that the Sars-Cov-2 virus had found me.

I hoped it was exhaustion that I’d sleep off but the next day, still feverish, I was urged to take a Covid test. A leading diagnostic lab chain, which earlier had run an efficient home-testing service, had stopped answering its phones and responding to online requests. But a doctor friend persuaded one of the lab’s phlebotomists to collect my sample. Two days later, the results confirmed I was part of the ferocious coronavirus wave battering India and pushing its healthcare system to breaking point.

Over the following days, my physical symptoms remained mild. But it was still harrowing to be sick from a notoriously unpredictable virus knowing that drugs, hospital beds and oxygen were scarce. I suffered constant anxiety knowing I’d struggle to get medical help if I took a turn for the worse.

I quickly discovered that I’d been so focused on avoiding infection that I had no clue what to do once sick. A friend connected me to a Kolkata-based infectious disease specialist, who felt I was at low risk for severe illness. I’d had the first dose of a Covid vaccine 10 days before my fever started. But the doctor urged me to treat the illness aggressively from the start, given the chaos at hospitals.

He prescribed the antiviral drug, favipiravir, now undergoing clinical trials in the UK as a potential Covid-19 therapy but already approved in India for emergency use. Many of his patients had taken it, he said, and none suffered severely, including people in their 90s.

Normally, I’m reluctant to medicate. I knew favipiravir’s effectiveness as a coronavirus treatment wasn’t yet scientifically validated. But with hospitals turning away ailing patients, the logic of taking an experimental drug made sense. The challenge, I discovered, was to get hold of it.

I called five pharmacies, but all had run out of stock. A friend called six more to no avail. I panicked — the doctor wanted me to start the drug fast and Delhi was hours from the start of a weekend curfew. Then a friend, who’d heard I was Covid-19 positive, called.

“I’m looking for this drug,” I told her. “Any idea where I can get it?” She said she’d check. It turned out that people with foresight had prepared small emergency drug stashes. Her friend had such a stash and was willing to share it.

I was elated to get the pills to start treatment that night. But it wasn’t enough for the prescribed course. Days later I spent hours calling pharmacies in an unsuccessful hunt for more, before finally begging an industry friend to help.

My difficulties pale in comparison with the desperation, anger and grief beyond my sickroom. My Twitter feed was filled with pleas for hospital beds, oxygen cylinders, the antiviral remdesivir, plasma or a place in an intensive care unit. Top hospitals begged on Twitter for refills of dwindling oxygen supplies. Friends and many professional contacts were fighting for their lives. Doctor friends were weeping with impotent rage.

There was much grim news of death. A former Indian ambassador died after hours waiting in a hospital parking lot for admission; inpatients whose oxygen ran out; a top politician’s 34-year-old son, young journalists. Crematoriums struggled with an unprecedented flow of bodies.

I decided I had to tune out of the unfolding crisis, to ensure my physical recovery and to protect my mental health. I stopped checking Twitter. Newspapers piled up, unread.

Once I felt better and tuned back, I saw Narendra Modi’s government had cynically expanded eligibility for vaccination to all over the age of 18, despite an acute shortage of jabs.

And with thousands dying daily, often for want of medical help, the health minister was callously citing dubious official data to claim India’s Covid fatality rate was lower than richer countries — hardly consolation to grief-stricken families.

Today, I’ve recovered from my encounter with the virus. It will take far longer to get over the trauma of watching this calamity engulf the place I call home.

amy.kazmin@ft.com



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Indian foreign minister self-isolates after Covid cases detected in G7 delegation

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India’s foreign minister on Wednesday said that he was self-isolating after two members of the country’s delegation to the G7 meetings in London tested positive for coronavirus.

The face-to-face meetings in the UK capital began on Monday and are scheduled to end on Wednesday. Representatives from G7 countries such as Canada, Germany and France are attending alongside Australia and India as the UK seeks to strengthen its ties within the Indo-Pacific region.

Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s external affairs minister, confirmed on Twitter that he was informed on Tuesday evening that he had been exposed to a possible Covid-19 case.

“As a measure of abundant caution and also out of consideration for others, I decided to conduct my engagements in the virtual mode,” he added. It is understood that the rest of the Indian delegation will self- isolate for the remainder of the G7 meetings.

Jaishankar held a socially distanced meeting with UK home secretary Priti Patel on Tuesday, where two agreed on a “migration and mobility deal” which will provide a “bespoke route” for young professionals from India looking to live and work in the UK. He met Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, earlier this week.

“We deeply regret that foreign minister Jaishankar will be unable to attend the meeting today in person,” a senior UK diplomat said. “(He) will now attend virtually, but this is exactly why we have put in place strict Covid protocols and daily testing.”



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Blinken rejects claims of ‘cold war’ between US and China

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America’s top diplomat Antony Blinken has rejected claims the US is entering a cold war with China during a visit to London to discuss with G7 counterparts how best to respond to the challenges posed by Beijing.

In an interview with Financial Times editor Roula Khalaf for The Global Boardroom, Blinken said he resisted “putting labels on most relationships including this one, because it’s complex”.

“This is not about initiating a cold war, this is all about doing our part to make sure that democracy is strong, resilient, and meeting the needs of its people,” he said, referring to Washington’s intention to hold a “democracy summit” later in the year.

Joe Biden, US president, has promised to “win” the 21st century in what he has portrayed as a “battle” between democracies and autocracies and has pointed to Chinese activities that the US says are damaging the international order.

Relations between the US and China deteriorated under the Trump administration and the countries remain at loggerheads over security, human rights, intellectual property, and rules governing trade and commerce.

“We’re not asking countries to choose [between the US and China],” Blinken added in remarks at the FT Live event on Tuesday, which were broadcast after G7 countries opened their meeting with a session on China.

Ahead of the event, a US state department official said the G7 session on Tuesday morning was intended to be a forum to discuss how to work closely with allies and partners to address shared challenges from a position of strength.

Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, far right, is meeting with G7 leaders in London to discuss how best to respond to the challenges posed by Beijing © Stefan Rousseau/Pool/Getty

Blinken said the US recognised that countries have complicated relationships, including with China, and that the US did not believe other countries’ economic relationships with Beijing “need to be cut off or ended”. However, he said the US wanted to foster and protect basic rules governing commerce, the environment, intellectual property and technology.

Biden has surprised many foreign policy experts by taking an approach to China that has more in common than not with the harsh stance taken by former president Donald Trump. One big difference has been a significant effort to work with US allies and partners to create more leverage to deal with Beijing.

His approach has been welcomed by allies in Asia, such as Japan and Australia. But there is concern in the EU about the bloc being caught between the US and China, particularly in Germany.

Angela Merkel, German chancellor, has said the EU and the US do not agree on everything and that it was “absolutely clear” that their interests were “not identical” when it came to China.

The G7 comprises the US, Canada, UK, France, Germany, Italy and Japan, and this year the UK has also invited Australia, India, South Korea, Brunei and South Africa to attend as guests.

Biden recently convened the first leader-level meeting of the Quad — a group that includes the US, Japan, India and Australia — as part of this effort to work with allies to counter Beijing.

Evan Medeiros, professor of Asian studies at Georgetown University, said the Biden team’s engagement with the G7 formed part of its effort to assemble coalitions to tackle the China challenge.

He said the administration was pursuing the right strategy by saying the US did not want a cold war and did not want countries to pick sides, but he added: “The reality is everybody is going to have to make choices when it comes to China.”

But Bonnie Glaser, Asia programme director at the German Marshall Fund of the US, highlighted concerns among some that Washington’s stance was “too aggressive and too confrontational”.

“I definitely have the impression that the Germans and some other Europeans are really quite unhappy about the US approach to China,” she said.

In March, the US, EU, UK and Canada co-ordinated the imposition of sanctions on Chinese officials over the country’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims in the western Xinjiang region, triggering retaliatory sanctions from Beijing.

Biden administration officials including Blinken frame the future of the US relationship with China as “competitive, collaborative and adversarial”, depending on the issue in question.

Washington wants to co-operate with Beijing on foreign policy issues including Iran, North Korea and climate change while also defending US interests in the military, technological and economic spheres and pushing back on human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

Blinken said that “a democratic recession around the world” had occurred over the past 15 years, but admitted the US had its own challenges “visible for the world to see” when it comes to democracy, in a thinly veiled reference to the disputed presidential election and January 6 Capitol attacks.



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