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Google Wants It All

Forget wearable computers and self-driving cars. The search giant will continue its dominance by sticking with its roots—taking $20 billion out of the hides of some very familiar companies.



It’s mid-September, and Volkswagen of America has a problem: It won’t have any new models coming out until the spring. Keeping VW front and ­center in consumers’ minds has drawn a group of marketing folks from the automaker and two of its ad agencies to Google’s BrandLab at its YouTube headquarters south of San Francisco. Dedicated to “evangelizing the art and science of brand-building,” the richly appointed meeting space is basically a man cave for ad creatives, complete with overstuffed couches, booze and the mother of all big screens, an assemblage of 32 flat-panel displays massed into 300 square feet of video overload.

In one corner of the BrandLab, Google’s Jeff Rozic goes to work running VW’s folks through a rapid-fire succession of video ad campaigns the BrandLab feels have worked. His earnest delivery is well-honed, courtesy of 100-plus similar “private workshops” held for potential advertisers from Coca-Cola to Toyota over the past year. VW has some catching up to do, a point Rozic makes intentionally or not by highlighting 13 travel vignettes produced by a rival, Nissan Mexico. His larger point: Don’t clutter a story with too blatant a call to action. “We shouldn’t apologize for trying to sell cars,” one VW exec protests. “Sure,” Rozic shoots back, “but you have to be careful to distinguish when you’re telling a story and when you’re selling.”

Fair point. Rozic is clearly selling—and it’s a product intended to change Google’s path. The king of the click is now lecturing one of the world’s most accomplished advertisers to forget those clicks and amp up the image ads. CEO Larry Page can go on as much as he wants about self-driving cars, wearable computers or any of the company’s other “moon shots.” But Google fundamentally remains the most disruptive advertising company of the past half-century. As its total advertising-revenue growth rate has halved in the past two years, from 29% to 15% (thanks in part to Facebook and Twitter), it’s now charging full-bore toward the biggest pot of advertising gold it doesn’t own: brand advertising, the image ads you see in glossy magazines and on television.

Most online ads—the banners that litter nearly every commercial website and, most notably, Google’s search ads—have failed to help marketers move the needle on classic advertising measures like brand awareness and intent to purchase. ­Instead, they mainly drive people to a product page to click the buy button. ­Direct marketing is lucrative: Search is still upwards of 60% of Google’s ad revenue, helping it earn an estimated 15.8% net margin in 2013—but image ads will come to dominate digital advertising in this decade.

Look at the numbers: Digital brand advertising is an $18 billion market this year, according to eMarketer. Its forecast implies that number will double by 2018, at which point it will have passed search and direct marketing, with plenty of room to grow.

Television advertising, comprising almost entirely image ads, is currently a $200 billion global market. And it’s a vulnerable one, as the medium’s iron grip on the bulk of ad spending looks a little less firm as younger people scatter to YouTube and Netflix when they aren’t Snapchatting or Instagramming on iPhones or skipping ads entirely on their DVRs. Some 75% of respondents to an Interactive Advertising Bureau poll of 5,000 ad execs expect to see some spending move from TV to digital video in the next year.

This explains the man cave. YouTube remains one of the greatest acquisitions of the Internet era. Larry and Sergey paid $1.65 billion in 2006 for a business that today would conservatively be worth $20 billion as a stand-alone. So what’s another $400 million or so to build out a brand ad business?

The return has been fairly quick: In October Publicis’ MediaVest, the ad agency for Coca-Cola, Honda and other big advertisers, inked a deal to spend tens of millions of dollars over the next year on Google video, display and mobile ads. It was Google’s first agreement with such an online partner to buy ads in advance, as agencies and marketers do on television. In November Publicis agencies DigitasLBi and Razorfish went bigger, committing to spend $100 million on YouTube and Google’s banner and mobile ad networks this year. “Google is one of the few players with a platform big and wide enough to attract these dollars,” says Razorfish CEO Pete Stein.

And Google sources insist that more of these “upfront” deals will be announced shortly, which has investors—who have driven the stock to a recent alltime high of over $1,150—feeling bullish. Tim Ghriskey, chief investment officer at the asset management firm Solaris Group, a Google investor, figures the company could capture about 6% of TV ad spending by 2020, or $20 billion a year. Given that Google’s total revenue this year will come in at around $60 billion, this is the growth the company needs to continue its dominance.


Susan Wojcicki was Google’s 16th hire. Marissa Mayer came a few hires later, yet it was Mayer, now Yahoo’s CEO, who became the flashy female face of Google. No matter. Wojcicki (pronounced wo-JIT-ski), the senior vice president in charge of all Google ad products, plays the anti-Marissa. She favors jeans and hoodies around the office, displaying a self-deprecating plainness that one former employee says is reminiscent of Chance the gardener from the movie Being There. “She never felt she needed to be the smartest person in the room,” says another ex-colleague.

Instead, she’s become the most powerful person—male or female—in advertising. She manages effectively without drama and thus has been Page’s go-to exec for wins such as the introduction of AdSense, which pays other sites to run Google ads (now a $13 billion business), and the acquisitions of DoubleClick, an ad-serving pioneer, and YouTube. “She only works on big problems, not small ones,” says ShareThis CEO Kurt Abrahamson, who worked for her a decade ago.

Her vision of the future of advertising (and hence Google)? Since content is flowing across so many digital devices—a trend Google is trying to accelerate with such initiatives as its Chromecast device for streaming online video to TVs and its flurry of Android smartphones and tablets—she sees nearly all advertising eventually going digital, too, putting it squarely in Google’s wheelhouse.

“Advertisers will have to go where the users go,” says Wojcicki, sitting outside her office at the Googleplex, sipping a “detox” lemonade with maple syrup and a dash of cayenne. “A big chunk of dollars will follow.”

Wojcicki envisions an operating system for advertising that can connect search, display, YouTube and branded content, and bundle it all up into campaigns that span computers, smartphones, tablets, connected TVs and—who knows?—maybe Google Glass. Some marketers are moving quickly in that direction. For the recent launch of its D Rose 4 sneakers, Adidas ran ads on YouTube and the Google Display Network, a partnership of some 2 million sites, backed up by mobile ads for a second-screen experience and search ads to catch those who want to buy them right away.

For some time Wojcicki has talked about the “perfect ad,” the one that people see at precisely the time they want to know about a product or are ready to buy it. Search ads now approach that ideal for direct sales, but Wojcicki pictures image ads, supplemented by data on personal preferences and behavior, that can plant the seed for brand or product preference just as well. It’s an advertising axiom that people are more receptive to messages when they’re leaning back on the couch watching TV than when engaged in online activities. Wojcicki contends the potential is for just the opposite. “If users are engaging with something, they’re choosing to see it,” she says, and Google can use that overt choice to serve even more relevant ads.

So how would a Web display ad—largely, the vilified banner—engage?

Upstairs at Google’s display-ad headquarters off the main campus in Mountain View, Calif. scrawled equations blanket a wall-size whiteboard. The equations are a scrap of the impossibly complex mathematical formulas that power its $12.5 billion display network business. “They turn into beautiful rich-media ads,” Neal Mohan, Google’s vice president of display advertising, explains dreamily as we walk by.

When Larry Page took over as CEO in 2011, he told Mohan to “revolutionize” display ads so they’re just as useful as Google’s obscenely profitable search ads. Mohan, a veteran of pre-Google DoubleClick, is a true believer. (With a reported $100 million in stock grants to keep the likes of Facebook and Twitter at bay, he isn’t driven by the need for more money.) He has bought or built what even rivals concede is the broadest set of software needed by advertisers and publishers to sell and place ads, including a state-of-the-art ad exchange that sells space as fluidly as the Nasdaq sells stock.

Mohan, who likes to decry the 40% of “spray and pray” TV advertising he says is wasted on indifferent audiences, offers a vision of the future in which Google can marry its data about individual consumers with the reach of TV and measure the results, too.

Google can generate that reach with its display network, which ­ranges from tiny outfits to the New York Times and USA Today. It serves ads on those websites for a cut of revenue. (Tellingly, even NBC partakes, though Google has put a big, fat target on its back.) The network ­reaches 90% of the Web’s population and serves impressions to a billion people worldwide a month. It was tough sledding early on, as ads began showing up on dodgy niche sites, but an ongoing cleanup campaign has big brand advertisers increasingly interested. The number of advertisers booking space months ahead—an option chiefly used by big marketers looking to influence brand consideration—has quadrupled from a year ago, but Google isn’t offering specifics.

Still, the banner ads have been losing out to “native” ads, which use content rather than a boring banner to attract people’s attention. “Facebook is a bigger bet for us right now than YouTube,” says Laurent Fa­racci, the U.S. chief marketing officer for Reckitt Benckiser, owner of brands such as Lysol and Clearasil. Instead, Mohan has bet on rich “engagement ads” for the display network. For instance, one might expand to play videos, games or apps when hovered over for two seconds. Samsung recently ran millions of them to play a live video stream of a new smartphone and smartwatch. In June Burberry ran display and mobile ads through Google that prompted people to snap a photo of their own puckered-up lips and send the digital imprint of the kiss to a loved one.

They’re starting to work. Now used in about 1,000 campaigns daily, engagement ads command around double the price of standard banners, which vary wildly but average around $3 per thousand viewers reached. That’s partly because advertisers can choose not to pay unless someone actually views those ads—like those who pay for clicks rather than views in the banner world—so they’re more valuable. Still, branding remains a challenge for a company whose success so far derives from cold mathematics. Back at the BrandLab, there’s an elegant arrangement of two dozen digital photo frames mounted on a pedestal, all playing videos of flames. “Great stories are told around the campfire,” a Google project manager explains. Cute. Except this campfire gives off no heat. For that, Google needs some of the sizzle of Hollywood.


The warren of studios and soundstages southwest of Hollywood is strewn with cameras, lights, toolboxes and half-empty coffee cups. One stage features stock horror-movie sets, like the hotel hall from The Shining. In another studio, three women, one of them with scissors in hand, are preparing to film a video on how to cut your own bangs. Once a hangar where Hughes Aircraft built the Spruce Goose in the 1940s, this 41,000-square-foot building is now YouTube Space LA, possibly the world’s largest production facility dedicated to online video.

It’s YouTube’s latest bid to shed its dog-on-a-skateboard-video image and make the site a cleaner, more well-lit place for big TV marketers. That bid began a couple of years ago with YouTube’s $300 million drive to create some 200 TV-like channels from the likes of Shaquille O’Neal and Amy Poehler. While they don’t have TV networks quaking just yet, YouTube has been able to command higher ad prices closer to those of TV than Web display ads. YouTube gross ad revenue jumped 51% in 2013 to $5.6 billion, netting $2 billion after payments to content and ad partners, according to eMarketer.

Here’s the funny thing, though: It turns out that some of the most popular channels are not network wannabes. They’re from producers such as PewDiePie and Jenna Marbles, invisible to those over 30. Likewise, some of the most popular ads on YouTube don’t even look like the TV ads that Google has hoped to capture. It’s dawning on big marketers from American Express to General Electric that to take advantage of the social and interactive nature of online they need to forge a new sensibility, not simply rerun TV commercials.

In a new take on its long-running Campaign for Real Beauty, for instance, Dove launched a video on YouTube in April that featured an FBI-trained forensic artist sketching two portraits of women. One was based on their own descriptions and another on a stranger’s, which produced more attractive images. By May the Unilever brand’s touching three-minute video had drawn more than 114 million views worldwide, becoming the most-viewed online video ad ever. “It’s not just 30-second ads,” says Jamie Byrne, YouTube’s director of content strategy. “It’s creating something that people want to engage with and share with friends.”

So now it’s up to Byrne, whose previous job was head of YouTube’s original programming push, to make it easy for big brands to reach YouTube’s 1 billion monthly viewers.

Similar to Rozic’s ad-campaign boot camps in the BrandLab, Byrne brings companies such as PepsiCo and Johnson & Johnson to YouTube LA for a four-day workshop on creating compelling stories, videos and YouTube channels. He’s aiming to get more than 100 advertisers into the program this year, both at YouTube LA and in a new combo studio and BrandLab being built in New York.

If Byrne has his way, the new world of brand marketing online will look a lot like a shoot at an unassuming neo-eclectic house in Anaheim Hills, 45 minutes southeast of Los Angeles. In the living room a crew of six is filming the sixth episode of Grace’s Faces, on Bobbi Brown Cosmetics’ I love makeup channel on YouTube. It features Grace Helbig, a 28-year-old YouTube star whose own self-produced channel, Daily Grace, draws more than 2 million subscribers to her wacky takes on life. For this new show, Helbig shows up at the doors of fellow YouTube stars to do a makeover.

Her subject this day is Rebecca Black, the 16-year-old who became an instant star in early 2011 for her self-produced monotonous pop hit, “Friday,” that year’s most-watched video on YouTube. Marc Reagan, manager of artistry at Bobbi Brown, is showing Black how to apply various kinds of makeup. Dull barks from a dog banished to the garage only add to the authenticity, apparently. Helbig jumps into the frame, bubbling with a whiff of irony, “You look like an angel!” For a companion show, Touching Your Stuff, Helbig prowls the house rifling through personal effects. “In this medium you can get your Idol moment without paying $20 million,” says Reza Izad, whose Collective Digital Studio produces I love makeup and more than 200 other channels, such as the Annoying Orange—a piece of talking citrus that heckles other fruit until they get sliced with a knife.

It’s all pretty nutty, but there’s nothing amateur about Grace’s Faces. Or even overtly commercial. Bobbi Brown isn’t mentioned anywhere in Grace’s Faces despite the use of its cosmetics. Still, the company says it’s happy with the 300,000 views the channel got the first week and the 70,000 channel subscriptions it drew in the next two weeks. “We felt like comedic programming would be in line with our brand personality and would resonate with a younger audience,” says Bobbi Brown President Maureen Case. Marketers don’t pay YouTube to run the shows, but they do pay to run lots of ads to drive people to watch them.

Google will ultimately win this race for a simple reason: Video ads perform better than TV spots, says David Cohen, Universal McCann’s chief investment officer, based on multiple studies his agency has done. “But TV advertising is a frictionless system,” he adds, “a well-oiled machine.” Google can play around with Larry Page’s moon shots, one of which might eventually land, but what will pay for those flights of fancy? Making digital display just as free of friction, something Google knows how to do. It’s just a matter of time.

Current Affairs


Just like the world is desperately seeking a cure to end the coronavirus pandemic which has killed over 275,000 people so far and leaving a trail of human, economic and social misery, the world too must find a way to end wars, or else we may be defeated as a civilization.



UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calls on President Ashraf Ghani during a visit to Afghanistan’s capital Kabul to show solidarity with the Afghan people. Photo UNAMA / Fardin Waezi/June 2017.

The world commemorated the 75th Anniversary to mark the end of the 2nd World War also called VE Day on May 08, 2020.

With her nation, and much of the world still in lockdown, due to COVID 19, England’s Queen marked 75 years since the allied victory in Europe with a poignant televised address. From Windsor Castle, Queen Elizabeth said, “ the wartime generation knew that the best way to honour those who did not come back from the war, was to ensure that it didn’t happen again”.

But the world is still at war. Proxy wars or localised conflicts are wrecking havoc on human development and humanity in virtually every corner of the world. By the end of 2018, wars, violence and persecution have driven record numbers of over 70 million people from their homes worldwide, according to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. This is the largest ever displacement of humanity, post 2nd World War.

Never has the appeal by the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres been more pertinent: “The world is in pieces; we need world peace.” 

The United States signed a historic deal with Afghanistan that outlines a timetable and exit plan for American troops, setting the stage for the potential end to nearly 18 years of war in Afghanistan.  The UN Secretary General welcomed the US-Taliban peace agreement on February 29, 2020.  The United States also won the unanimous backing of the UN Security Council to this ambitious peace deal on March 10, 2020.

The implementation of the peace agreement will need leadership, courage and resolve and there will be spoilers who will attempt to upend the peace process. The road to peace will be characterized by violence, set-backs and numerous false starts, but it will need diplomacy, determination and drive to keep the peace process on track.

Hubris must not prolong the agony of this appalling war. 

The war has cost over $2 trillion and killed more than 2,400 American soldiers and 38,000 Afghan civilians. Casualties among Afghan security forces are estimated to have reached around 40,000 between 2007 and 2017.

Wars are appalling. As a combat veteran, I have witnessed first-hand how armed conflicts have transformed some of our finest soldiers into shells of the people I once knew. Combat is savage, it is brutal, it is reckless, it diminishes us as human beings and jeopardizes our humanity.

General William Sherman once said, “It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, and more desolation. War is hell.”

There are no winners in Afghanistan, but let’s consider the consequences on all the women and men who fought in it.

Today, research backs up what soldiers have described for decades, and what was once called shell shock or combat fatigue. We have terms like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), chronic depression, cognitive impairment, and traumatic brain injury to help explain the symptoms suffered by active and returning soldiers.  

U.S. Army soldiers on security duty in Paktīkā province, Afghanistan, 2010. Sgt. Derec Pierson/U.S. Department of Defense

For a long time, many of the grim statistics about war centred on fatalities and did not include the conflicts’ deep mental wounds. Today we have a better understanding of the kind of moral and psychological toll wars take on soldiers, their families, and communities.

The United States is a leader in the understanding of psychological and emotional damage to soldiers and has taken some steps to address their mental health. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have left between 11% and 20% of military personnel suffering from PTSD. As many as 375,000 US veterans have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries between 2000 and 2017, mostly caused by explosions. 

But suicides in the US armed forces have continued to rise in recent years, reaching record levels in 2018 when there were 25 deaths per 100,000 service members. Former defence secretary Leon Panetta once said that the “epidemic” of military suicide was “one of the most frustrating problems” he had faced.

More than $350 billion has already gone to medical and disability care for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Experts say that more than half of that spending belongs to the Afghanistan effort.

Homelessness among veterans is pervasive, and soldiers still struggle to access benefits and healthcare if they suffer from mental health issues rather than from physical wounds. At any given time in the US, more than 40,000 veterans are homeless, constituting around 9% of all homeless adults in the country. 

In the United Kingdom, spurred by a dozen suicides among Afghan war veterans in just two months, the government expedited new mental health programs to help deal with former military members’ PTSD and addiction. 

What does this now mean for the Afghan security forces? They and their families do not have the same support structures.

All this ‘hell’, but to what end? Afghanistan remains one of the world’s largest sources of refugees and migrants. Since 2004 alone, more than 1.8 million Afghans have become internally displaced. Afghanistan’s human development and progress has been set back by decades. Women and children have suffered the most and countless are emotionally and psychologically scarred for life.

While we like to see soldiers as stoic and heroic, we must open our eyes to the fact that wars scar minds as well as bodies, often in ways medical science cannot yet comprehend.

Just like the world is desperately seeking a cure to end the coronavirus pandemic which has killed over 275,000 people so far and leaving a trail of human, economic and social misery, the world too must find a way to end wars, or else we may be defeated as a civilization.

Siddharth Chatterjee, is the United Nations resident coordinator to Kenya. He has served with the UN and the Red Cross Movement in various parts of the world affected by conflicts and humanitarian crisis. He is also a decorated Special Forces veteran and a Princeton University alumnus. Follow him on Twitter @sidchat1

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.​​​​​

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Climate Explained: How Much Of Climate Change Is Natural? How Much Is Man-made?



How much climate change is natural? How much is man made?

As someone who has been working on climate change detection and its causes for over 20 years I was both surprised and not surprised that I was asked to write on this topic by The Conversation. For nearly all climate scientists, the case is proven that humans are the overwhelming cause of the long-term changes in the climate that we are observing. And that this case should be closed.

Despite this, climate denialists continue to receive prominence in some media which can lead people into thinking that man-made climate change is still in question. So it’s worth going back over the science to remind ourselves just how much has already been established.

Successive reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – mandated by the United Nations to assess scientific evidence on climate change – have evaluated the causes of climate change. The most recent special report on global warming of 1.5 degrees confirms that the observed changes in global and regional climate over the last 50 or so years are almost entirely due to human influence on the climate system and not due to natural causes.

What is climate change?

First we should perhaps ask what we mean by climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defines climate change as:

a change in the state of the climate that can be identified by changes in the mean and/or the variability of its properties and that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer.

The causes of climate change can be any combination of:

  • Internal variability in the climate system, when various components of the climate system – like the atmosphere and ocean – vary on their own to cause fluctuations in climatic conditions, such as temperature or rainfall. These internally-driven changes generally happen over decades or longer; shorter variations such as those related to El Niño fall in the bracket of climate variability, not climate change.
  • Natural external causes such as increases or decreases in volcanic activity or solar radiation. For example, every 11 years or so, the Sun’s magnetic field completely flips and this can cause small fluctuations in global temperature, up to about 0.2 degrees. On longer time scales – tens to hundreds of millions of years – geological processes can drive changes in the climate, due to shifting continents and mountain building.
  • Human influence through greenhouse gases (gases that trap heat in the atmosphere such as carbon dioxide and methane), other particles released into the air (which absorb or reflect sunlight such as soot and aerosols) and land-use change (which affects how much sunlight is absorbed on land surfaces and also how much carbon dioxide and methane is absorbed and released by vegetation and soils).

What changes have been detected?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent report showed that, on average, the global surface air temperature has risen by 1°C since the beginning of significant industrialisation (which roughly started in the 1850s). And it is increasing at ever faster rates, currently 0.2°C per decade, because the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have themselves been increasing ever faster.

The oceans are warming as well. In fact, about 90% of the extra heat trapped in the atmosphere by greenhouse gases is being absorbed by the oceans.

A warmer atmosphere and oceans are causing dramatic changes, including steep decreases in Arctic summer sea ice which is profoundly impacting arctic marine ecosystems, increasing sea level rise which is inundating low lying coastal areas such as Pacific island atolls, and an increasing frequency of many climate extremes such as drought and heavy rain, as well as disasters where climate is an important driver, such as wildfire, flooding and landslides.

Multiple lines of evidence, using different methods, show that human influence is the only plausible explanation for the patterns and magnitude of changes that have been detected.

This human influence is largely due to our activities that release greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, as well sunlight absorbing soot. The main sources of these warming gases and particles are fossil fuel burning, cement production, land cover change (especially deforestation) and agriculture.

Weather attribution

Most of us will struggle to pick up slow changes in the climate. We feel climate change largely through how it affects weather from day-to-day, season-to-season and year-to-year.

The weather we experience arises from dynamic processes in the atmosphere, and interactions between the atmosphere, the oceans and the land surface. Human influence on the broader climate system acts on these processes so that the weather today is different in many ways from how it would have been.

One way we can more clearly see climate change is by looking at severe weather events. A branch of climate science, called extreme event or weather attribution, looks at memorable weather events and estimates the extent of human influence on the severity of these events. It uses weather models run with and without measured greenhouse gases to estimate how individual weather events would have been different in a world without climate change.

As of early 2019, nearly 70% of weather events that have been assessed in this way were shown to have had their likelihood and/or magnitude increased by human influence on climate. In a world without global warming, these events would have been less severe. Some 10% of the studies showed a reduction in likelihood, while for the remaining 20% global warming has not had a discernible effect. For example, one study showed that human influence on climate had increased the likelihood of the 2015-2018 drought that afflicted Cape Town in South Africa by a factor of three.

Adapting to a changing climate

Weather extremes underlie many of the hazards that damage society and the natural environment we depend upon. As global warming has progressed, so have the frequency and intensity of these hazards, and the damage they cause.

Minimising the impacts of these hazards, and having mechanisms in place to recover quickly from the impacts, is the aim of climate adaptation, as recently reported by the Global Commission on Adaptation.

As the Commission explains, investing in adaptation makes sense from economic, social and ethical perspectives. And as we know that climate change is caused by humans, society cannot use “lack of evidence” on its cause as an excuse for inaction any more.

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Current Affairs

The Rage And Tears That Tore A Nation



Snapshots of the outrage against foreign nationals and protests against sexual offenders in South Africa in recent weeks, captured by FORBES AFRICA photojournalist Motlabana Monnakgotla.

As the continent’s second-biggest economy, South Africa attracts migrants from the rest of Africa. But mired in its own problems of unemployment and political instability, September saw a serious outbreak of attacks by South Africans on foreign nationals and foreign-owned businesses. And they have been ugly.    

The spark that fueled the raging fire was in Pretoria, the country’s capital, when a taxi driver was shot dead by a foreign national who was selling drugs to a youngster in the central business district (CBD).

The altercation caused a riot and the taxi industry brought the CBD to a standstill, blocking intersections. It did not stop there; a week later, about 60 kilometers from the capital in Malvern, a suburb east of the Johannesburg CBD, a hijacked building caught fire, leaving three dead. As emergency services were putting out the fire, the residents took advantage and looted foreign-owned shops and burned car dealerships overnight on Jules Street.

The lootings extended to the CBD and other parts of Johannesburg.

To capture this embarrassing moment in South African history, I visited Katlehong, a township 35 kilometers east of Johannesburg, where the residents blocked roads leading to Sontonga Mall on a mission to loot the mall and the foreign-owned shops therein overnight.

Shop-owners and workers were shocked to wake up to no business.

Mfundo Maljingolo, a worker at Fish And Chips, was among the distressed.

“This thing started last night, people started looting and broke into the mall and did what they wanted to do. I couldn’t go to work today because there’s nothing to do; now, we are not going to get paid. The shop will be losing close to R10,000 ($677) today. It’s messed up,” said Maljingolo.

But South African businesses were affected too.

Among the shops at the mall is Webbers, a clothing and footwear store. Looters could not enter the shop and it was one of the few that escaped the vandalism.

Dineo Nyembe, the store’s manager, said she was in disbelief when she saw people could not enter the mall.

“We got here this morning and the ceiling was wrecked but there was no sign that the shop was entered, everything was just as we left it. Now, we are packing stock back to the warehouse, because we don’t know if they are coming back tonight,” lamented Nyembe, unsure if they would make their daily target or if they would be trading again.

 Across the now-wrecked mall are small businesses that were not as fortunate as Webbers, and it was not only the shop-owners that were affected. 

Emmanuel Nhlane’s home was robbed even as attackers were looting the shop outside.

“They broke into my house, I was threatened with a petrol bomb and I had to stand outside to give them a chance; they took my fridge, bed, cash and my VHS,” said Nhlane.

Nhlane had rented out his yard to foreign nationals to operate a shop. He does not comprehend why his belongings were taken because he doesn’t own a shop. Now, it means that the unemployed Nhlane will not be getting his monthly rental fee of R3,700 ($250).

Far away, the coastal KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, was also affected as trucks burned and a driver was killed because of his nationality. This was part of a logistics and transport industry national strike.

Back in Johannesburg, I visited the car dealerships that were a part of the burning spree on Jules Street.

The streets were still ashy and the air still smoky, two days after the unfortunate turn of events.

Muhamed Haffejee, one of the distraught businessmen there, said: “Currently, we are still not trading.” 

Cape Town, in the Western Cape province of South Africa, which hosted the World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa from September 4 to 6, was also witness to protests by women and girls from all walks of life outside the Cape Town International Convention Centre, demanding that the leadership take action to end the spate of gender-based violence (GBV) in the country.

There were protests also outside Parliament. What set off the nationwide outcry was the shocking rape and murder of Uyinene Mrwetyana, a 19-year-old film and media student at the University of Cape Town, inside a post office by a 42-year-old employee at the post office.

There was anger against the ghastly crimes and wave of GBV in the country that continues unabated. According to Stats SA, there has been a drastic increase of women-based violence in South Africa; sexual offences are up by 4.6%, from 50,108 in 2018 to 52,420 in 2019.

A week later, on a Friday, Sandton, Africa’s richest square mile and one of the biggest economic hubs, was shut down by hundreds of angry women and members of advocacy groups from across Johannesburg. They congregated by the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE), the cynosure of business, singing and chanting, to demand “a 2% levy on profits of all listed entities to help fund the fight against GBV and femicide”.   

Among the protesters was Cebi Ngqinanbi, holding a placard that read: “I’m not your punching bag.”

“We came here to disrupt Sandton as the heart of Johannesburg’s economic hub. We want to make everyone aware that women and children are being killed every day in South Africa and they [Sandton] continue with business as usual, sitting in their offices with air-conditioners and the stock exchange whilst people on the ground making them rich are dying. That is why we are here, to speak to those that have economic power,” said Ngqinanbi.

She added that if women can be given economic power, they will be able to fend for themselves and won’t fall prey to abusive men, since most women stay in abusive relationships because men are more financially stable.

Amid the chanting and singing of struggle songs, Nobuhle Ajiti addressed the crowd and shared her own haunting experience as a migrant in South Africa and survivor of GBV. She spoke in isiZulu, a South African language.

“I survived a gang rape; I was thrown out of a moving car and stabbed several times. I survived it, but am I going to survive xenophobia that is looming around in South Africa? Will I able to share my xenophobia story like I can share my GBV story?” questioned Ajiti.

She said as migrants, they did not wake up in the morning and decide to come to South Africa, but because of the hardships faced in their home countries, they were forced to come to what they perceived as the city of opportunities. And as a foreign national, she had to deal with both xenophobia and GBV.

“We experience institutionalized xenophobia in hospitals; we are forced to pay huge amounts for consultation. I am raped and I need medical attention and I am told I need to pay R5,000 ($250).

“As a mere migrant, where am I going to get R5,000? I get abused at home and the police officer would ask me where I’m from because of my accent, I sound Zimbabwean. What does my nationality have to do with my husband beating me at home or with the man that just raped me?” she asked.

Women stop traffic while they hold up placards stating their grievences against GBV. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

Addressing the resolute women outside was the JSE CEO Nicky Newton-King who received the memorandum demanding business take their plight seriously, from a civil society group representing over 70 civil society organizations and individuals.

The list of demands include that at all JSE-listed companies contribute to a fund to resource the National Strategy Plan on GBV and femicide, to be launched in November; transport for employees who work night shifts or work after hours; establish workplace mechanisms to provide support to GBV survivors as part of employee wellness, and prevention programs that help make workplaces safe spaces for all women.

Newton-King assured the protestors she would address their demands in seven days. But a lot can happen in seven days. Will there be more crimes in the meantime? How many more will be raped and killed in South Africa by then?

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