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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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Polish women count cost of tough abortion curbs

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Even before Poland all but outlawed abortion, Zofia has been thinking about moving abroad. But the near-ban that took effect earlier this year helped her make up her mind: this autumn she plans to move to Prague in the Czech Republic.

“I feel better there, freer, and being a woman there doesn’t make me feel weaker or worse,” she said. “I love my life in Warsaw. But when the [abortion ban was mooted], I thought, I don’t want to live here any more . . . And I don’t want my kids to live here.”

The 31-year-old artist is one of thousands of Polish women outraged by the tightening of the country’s abortion laws which, even before the overhaul, were among the strictest in the EU. Their anger centres on a ruling by the Constitutional Tribunal in October last year, which declared that a 1993 law allowing abortions in the case of severe foetal abnormalities was unconstitutional.

The ruling came into force in January, leaving only two grounds for an abortion in Poland: a threat to the mother’s health or if the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest. Such cases made up just 2.4 per cent of the 1,100 legal abortions in Poland in 2019.

Hundreds of thousands of Poles took to the streets when the ruling was announced in October, and activists have called for another round of protests on International Women’s Day this Monday. Polling suggests that a majority of Poles back some form of liberalisation.

Anti-abortion campaigners, often guided by their religion in what remains one of Europe’s most strongly Catholic countries, say the change was needed to protect the rights of unborn children.

“An unborn child is a separate person, which has its own body and its own rights. A child must not be deprived of the fundamental right of every human being — the right to life,” Kaja Godek, one of Poland’s most prominent anti-abortion campaigners, wrote on Facebook last month.

A pro-life poster in Krakow. Many Polish opponents of abortion are guided by faith in one of Europe’s most strongly Catholic countries
A pro-life poster in Krakow. Many Polish opponents of abortion are guided by religion in one of Europe’s most strongly Catholic countries © Omar Marques/Getty Images

But activists say the ruling will force women to give birth to babies with such severe abnormalities that they have no chance of survival. They also say the government has done too little to help the families of children born with disabilities, who receive only limited support.

“I’m terrified because for me as a woman in reproductive age, it means getting pregnant in Poland became dangerous. And I’m afraid for my sister, for my colleagues and friends, for my relatives and for many other women I meet every day as clients,” said Kamila Ferenc, a lawyer from the Federation for Women and Family Planning, a women’s rights group.

“They will be in a horrible position . . . they have lost the possibility to decide freely on their own, because it’s not so easy to have an abortion outside the system.”

In the past, Polish women who could afford it were able to seek abortions in neighbouring countries with more liberal laws, such as the Czech Republic or Slovakia. But with the pandemic limiting travel, experts say women are likely to turn to the internet to buy drugs from overseas that would allow them to carry out abortions at home. Women are not prosecuted for self-managed abortions carried out before the 22nd week of pregnancy.

“It used to be the case that illegal abortions were through surgical procedures by doctors and back-alley providers. Then abortion tourism rose in the early 2000s after Poland joined the EU. Now we are seeing an increase in self-managed abortions, which can be less of a financial and emotional burden,” said Maria Lewandowska, a researcher into reproductive health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Justyna Wydrzynska, from Abortion Dream Team, a group that helps women who want to terminate their pregnancies, said that since the abortion rules were tightened in January, the organisation had received three times the normal number of calls from women seeking help.

“We get around 600 to 700 phone calls a month. Around 100 of them need to go abroad [for an abortion], and for the rest, . . . these are mostly people in need of pills, assistance in taking pills or post-abortion care,” she said.

“Often they are human dramas. Some people approach it in a task-oriented way, others very emotionally. Sometimes it is very difficult.”

Despite the huge protests last year, women’s rights groups acknowledge that as long as Poland’s conservative-nationalist Law and Justice party remains in power, the prospect of the laws being loosened is minimal. But they hope that in the long run, the debate sparked by the ruling will lead to greater support for liberalisation.

“The factual situation of pregnant women is worse. But on the other hand I think we are now on a better track to change the situation than when [the previous government led by the centre-right] Civic Platform ruled and everybody thought everything was all right,” said Ferenc.

“There is more courage in society to speak about abortion. People educate themselves and each other. I think that we now have more solidarity and strength in society to fight for reproductive rights. ”



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Hong Kong dropped from economic freedom index after crackdown

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Hong Kong has been dropped from a prominent index of the world’s freest economies, underlining growing concerns over Beijing’s tightening grip on the Asian financial centre after it introduced a national security law last year.

The announcement from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative US think-tank, came as the majority of a group of 47 pro-democracy politicians were refused bail in a case that critics say shows the rapid decline of civic freedoms in the city.

The Heritage Foundation also dropped the Chinese special autonomous region of Macau, a casino hub and former Portuguese colony, from the rankings.

The foundation in recent years has been aligned with the administration of former US president Donald Trump.

“No doubt both Hong Kong and Macau . . . enjoy economic policies that in many respects offer their citizens more economic freedom than is available to the average citizen of China,” the Heritage Foundation said. “But developments in recent years have demonstrated unambiguously that those policies are ultimately controlled from Beijing.”

Beijing imposed the national security law on Hong Kong last year in response to anti-government protests that engulfed the city in 2019.

The measures are part of a clampdown on civil and political freedoms guaranteed to the city for 50 years following its handover from the UK to China in 1997. Authorities are targeting anyone viewed as disloyal to the Chinese government in politics, education and the media.

The Hong Kong government has long taken pride in studies showing its economy to be one of the most liberal in the world, with the city marketing itself as an international business haven given its low tax rates and open port.

The Heritage Foundation last year replaced Hong Kong at the top of its “Index of Economic Freedom” with Singapore, toppling it from a position it had held for 25 years, but still included the territory in the rankings in second place.

The Hong Kong government said it was ‘dismayed’ by the Heritage Foundation’s decision and said it was “politically biased”.

The case against the 47 pro-democracy lawmakers and activists has been seen as a test of whether the city’s legal system can withstand pressure from Beijing.

Authorities charged the group with subversion, alleging they aimed to topple the government by staging an unofficial primary vote to select candidates to run for election to the city’s legislature. Subversion is punishable with up to life imprisonment under the national security law.

The bail hearings, presided over by a judge appointed to oversee national security cases, entered their fourth day on Thursday.

Victor So, the judge overseeing the case, only granted bail to 15 out of 47 defendants under harsh conditions, but the prosecution immediately appealed the ruling, returning them to custody until the appeal hearing takes place. 

On top of the usual bail conditions, the court ordered the defendants to not participate in elections or make any public political statements.

Sessions have often stretched late into the evening, including one that continued until 3am before the defendants were hauled back before the court the next day. At least one defendant collapsed inside the courtroom and six others were sent to hospital for treatment.

As they exited the court, some defendants shouted: “Political criminals are not guilty, Hong Kongers will not die!”

Simon Young, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, said the treatment of the defendants was “most unsatisfactory”. Jerome Cohen, a Chinese law expert at New York University, said the way the hearing was conducted “makes a farce of procedural fairness”.

Some of the defendants have faced multiple trials simultaneously and were forced to shuffle between courtrooms.

The defendants’ lawyers said on Tuesday their clients had not bathed in three days, forcing the judge to delay the hearing to allow them to wash.

Hong Kong has tight restrictions on reporting the substance of bail hearings.

Hundreds of supporters have queued each day in an attempt to watch the proceedings in person. Many held placards and chanted banned political slogans, risking prosecution under the security law.



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Pakistan’s finance minister ousted in surprise defeat for Imran Khan

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Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan suffered a major political setback on Wednesday, when his finance minister was defeated in a contest for a seat in the country’s senate.

Khan must now appoint a successor to the cabinet post by June 11 under Pakistani law. The surprise defeat of finance minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, a respected economist and former world bank official who led the country’s negotiations with the IMF for a $6bn loan, comes amid an escalating campaign by main opposition parties to have the prime minister removed from office.

Elected officials vote to fill vacated seats in the senate every three years. Following the result, the government announced it would “take a vote of confidence in parliament” to prove that the prime minister retained a majority of support.

Business leaders have warned that Shaikh’s departure creates uncertainty over the future of Pakistan’s fiscal policies as the country battles the pandemic’s fallout on the economy.

“Right now, it was essential to give a message of confidence to a range of stake holders within and outside Pakistan on the state of our economy. Now, people will be left asking questions,” the president of a private Pakistani bank told the Financial Times.

An 11-party opposition alliance, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), has accused Khan of using the powerful military to tip the 2018 election result in his favour — which leaders from the prime minister’s party have denied — and for failing to revive the moribund economy.

The PDM has announced a March 26 deadline for Khan to step down or face widespread opposition protests.

Though some opposition leaders have said they plan to follow up Wednesday’s defeat with a vote of no confidence against Khan, analysts said it was too early to predict his downfall ahead of the end of his five-year term in 2023.

“It’s a major upset for Imran Khan and his PTI (Pakistan Justice Party),” said Huma Baqai, a political commentator at the University of Karachi. “The government from hereon will face further pressure as the opposition continues to step up its campaign.”

The vote count suggested a break in Khan’s PTI party, with as many as 16 party members either voting for the finance minister’s opponent, former prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, or spoiling their ballots.

Shaikh’s defeat “will not automatically lead to the prime minister’s downfall. Some PTI members clearly changed sides [for this vote]. But it will be much harder for them to agree to removing the prime minister,” an opposition leader told the FT.

Faisal Javed, a PTI leader, claimed some representatives had been bribed by the opposition. “There has been a major corruption. There has been horse-trading. People have been sold,” he told the local ARY news channel on Wednesday. Opposition leaders have denied this.

The electoral college for the senate consists of members from legislatures of Pakistan’s four provinces as well as the lower house of parliament in Islamabad known as the national assembly.



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