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Heroes Among Men



IIt’s a sunny Thursday, and I am at the Mobile Military Health Formation of the SA Military Health Service in Pretoria, South Africa’s capital city, to meet Limpopo-born Molatelo Nkoana, a 31-year-old woman who has dodged more bullets than most.

Nkoana’s running a little late, but then she arrives, sallying into the boardroom. She is on duty and in uniform, and proceeds to tell me about her life and the career she almost embarked on.

After completing her secondary education, Nkoana says she first went on to study and train as a nurse. But that wasn’t to last long; she gave it up midway – to join the military, a decision she would never regret.

“Basically, it was about the money, I was young and wasn’t getting enough money, so I went on the market,” says Nkoana.

The enthusiastic 22-year-old applied, and was recruited three months later, reporting to the Thaba Tshwane military base in Pretoria for basic training. She also trained in Kimberly, Bloemfontein and the Western Cape.

Nkoana had thought only the physically fit could join the military, but soon discovered it offered multiple careers one could explore. With her nursing background and experience, Nkoana chose to be a paramedic.

In March 2013, Nkoana was one of the 200 soldiers of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) selected to go to the Central African Republic (CAR) as part of South Africa’s peace-keeping mission there.

They would go on to fight a series of battles outside Bangui in the CAR. And Nkoana was the only woman on the frontline.

Michel Djotodia, leader of the rebel alliance, Seleka, had declared himself the new president of CAR and forced the then serving president, François Bozizé, out of the country.

It wasn’t going to be an easy task for the SANDF.

Nkoana takes me back to noon on that fateful Friday on March 22, 2013 when she first spotted the rebels; she remembers it all like it was yesterday.

She literally transports me to CAR with her vivid detailing of the series of events that unfolded. As she relates this story of death and danger, I hear the bullets, the gunshots and the rebels roar; I see the ravages of war in CAR.

Nkoana was amongst the first to see the rebels attack.

“We saw a civilian running away from those people, the rebels. I was at the gate of the base’s duty room. I ran to the sick-bay as a medic and told the people that the rebels are coming, the rebels are coming.”

When she reported it, nobody believed her. But she persisted, proceeding to gather her bulletproof vest, helmet, and weapon.

Her fellow soldiers only believed her when the Officer Commander (OC) ordered them to prepare and check what was happening outside the base. He tasked a team from the special force.

Around 5PM, this team was ambushed by the rebels, but they fought back tenaciously, and the rebels fled.

Three men of the special force team returned injured, one shot in the chest, the other had sustained a fracture in his femur and the third was wounded.

For the first time, the base knew it was rough outside.

“As medic personnel, we took them to civilian hospitals outside to get other doctors to help us,” recalls Nkoana.

Around 10PM the following day, the rebels came back again firing bombs. The SANDF could hear the entire din from their base. The Sergeant Major asked Nkoana to go with them to replenish food for the soldiers who had been on night vigil.

She grabbed her medical bag, helmet, bulletproof vest, weapon and left with the men, not hesitating for a minute.

It was around 12PM, when she along with the others drove 15-20 kilometers to the location of the stranded soldiers; it was quiet when they got there, but as soon as the rebels saw the SANDF vehicles, they started shooting again.

“We went out of the car and took cover, and then we started shooting back. While fighting, I managed to get one of the guys that was injured and suggested I take him back to the base because he could not run, fight or do anything,” she says.

The OC opted otherwise and Nkoana and the injured men had to wait even as the bullets rained over their heads.

At 5PM, as they were heading back to camp, the squad was ambushed again. This was when a number of lives were lost, says Nkoana, for the first time sounding emotional.

They did what they did before: stop the vehicle, step out and take cover.

As Nkoana was taking cover, one of the soldiers had been shot in both legs and was screaming out for her. She bandaged him but the chaos was far from over; yet another soldier was calling for one of the two medics that were there. He had almost missed a bullet but it had grazed his neck.

By then, Nkoana and the other medic could see dead bodies all around them. The injured soldiers shouted to them to leave because they were going to die.

“We told them we can’t leave. We are still alive and we can at least take cover with you. Let’s move to a safer place; the guy that was shot in the legs said he couldn’t walk and we should leave him there.”

The team refused and carried him to safety.

Around midnight, the OC called from the base asking for Nkoana. Many of the soldiers were already back at the base, but the young woman had stayed on with the other fighters.

“When they called, I switched off my phone because it was loud and we could hear the voices of the rebels from where we were hiding.

“I switched the phone back on and sent a message telling them ‘we are here, we are hiding, we’ve got two patients and we cannot get out of this cover’.”

Nkoana had full faith she was going to return home to her son in Senwabarwana, her hometown in South Africa’s Limpopo province. It kept her alive.

She thought she would be running on foot back to the camp because there was nothing that could rescue them.

Many soldiers died, but many of the rebels also died, so there was not going to be any mercy towards the SANDF.

Nkoana then received a text advising her and her patients to remain in hiding and stay calm. Around 4AM, she received a call asking if they were still undercover; they were then instructed to somehow make their way to the airport.

“The commander of the rebels was requesting the SANDF to go back to their country,” she says.

But Nkoana and the injured soldiers had to travel another 15 kilometers to the airport; she was still unsure of their safety. Their hideout was next to a tar-road and the rebels were driving up and down firing bullets into the sky.

A peace agreement had been signed, so the soldiers could go back to camp; get their belongings and head home to safety.

“[But] we were not sure the people in the streets knew of the peace agreement because if they see us they will shoot us; the agreements were done at the base and not in the streets,” says Nkoana.

They refused to come out of hiding.

They heard the Casspir (armed ambulance) that was sent to fetch them and the bodies of the dead soldiers, but they were still unsure if it was safe to surface. The vehicle went up and down, back and forth, looking for them.

“Around 7AM, the next day, we decided to go. They sent me a message to just surrender; I then told the guys ‘the Major says we should surrender’. I was the Corporal by then and the guys asked if we should shoot. I told them ‘no, because if you shoot one bullet, they will kill all of us’.”

Nkoana took command of the situation, complying with her superiors at the base.

The drama didn’t end there though.

Just as they got on to the road, the rebels came after them and took their weapons, bulletproof vests, ammunition and they were instructed to lie down. They then had to stand up and walk in a single file not knowing where they were being taken.

On the way, they climbed on to a bakkie (pickup truck) driven by other rebels which took them to their base. The soldiers at the base had started packing, and they had to pack up too. They were all then taken to the airport to head back home to South Africa. Finally, it was all over.

Nkoana was a 27-year-old woman who defied death at the hands of the rebels. She was honored with a bravery medal, invited to the opening of Parliament in South Africa in 2014 and was given the Sword Of Peace.

Like Nkoana, another South African woman was also honored for her bravery fleeing the rebels in CAR, with an equivalent of R3 million ($323,000 at the time) supporting the mission, in her bag.

Susette Gates, a mother of two sons, currently living in Pretoria, was deployed as the financial officer of the South African mission in CAR in charge of payroll. Before being employed by the SANDF, she had been a hairdresser, she says, laughing, when she speaks to us.

Like most people looking for jobs, she had applied for an open post at the Wonderboom military base and been accepted; she continues to work here.

I meet her at this base – she’s not in uniform – and in her own office adorned with family portraits, certificates and medals.

She was the only other woman besides Nkoana selected for the CAR mission. Those fearful moments in CAR are forever etched in her memory.

When the rebels were attacking the SANDF, Gates was watching a horror movie on her laptop at the base. Little did she know the horrors unfolding around her.

Ironically, she was informed about the chaos in CAR on the phone by her sister in South Africa. Only then did she realize there was no electricity and people had left their homes at the camp.

She called out to everyone but was the only one left. She was later relocated to another place where she spent the night.

“The next morning, I went back to get my belongings. The next thing the rebels were in the base and they took everything, they even took the cars,” she says.

“If they could grab food, clothes whatever. I had my money with me; they opened my bag and asked what it was. I told them it was clothes and asked if I could keep it, but the bag of money was under the clothes.”

Gates was released and managed to get away with the R3 million; the money she had hidden under her clothes and that belonged to the SANDF.

The trip to the airport was grim because all she saw was a dry and dirty town, gunshots going off in the background. On the flight back home, she knew there were dead bodies of colleagues on the plane. Gates almost kissed the ground when she landed in South Africa, she says.

Both these women returned as heroes and were honored by South Africa’s Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula in 2014. Of the 185 soldiers who survived the war, the two women stood out amongst the men. Today, there are other women fighting the rebels in the CAR like they did, risking their lives and saving the lives of the men around them.


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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Current Affairs

Quality Higher Education Means More Than Learning How To Work




When people talk about quality education, they’re often referring to the kind of education that gives students the knowledge and skills they need for the job market. But there’s a view that quality education has wider benefits: it develops individuals in ways that help develop society more broadly.

In Zimbabwe, for example, the higher education policy emphasises student employability and the alleviation of labour shortages. But, as my research found, this isn’t happening in practice.

University education needs to do more than produce a graduate who can get a job. It should also give graduates a sense of right and wrong. And it should instil graduates with an appreciation for other people’s development.

Tertiary education should also give students opportunities, choices and a voice when it comes to work safety, job satisfaction, security, growth and dignity. Higher education is a space where they can learn to be critical. It must prepare them for participating in the economy and broader society.

This isn’t happening in Zimbabwe. Graduate unemployment is high and employers and policy makers are blaming this largely on the mismatch between graduate skills and market requirements.

Investigating Zimbabwe’s universities
My research sought to examine how a human development lens could add to what was valued as higher education, and the kind of graduate outcomes produced in Zimbabwe. I investigated 10 of the universities in Zimbabwe (there were 15 at the time of the research). Four were private and six public.

I reviewed policy documents, interviewed representatives of institutions and held discussions with students. Members of Zimbabwe’s higher education quality assurance body and university teaching staff were also included.

I found that in practice, higher education in Zimbabwe was influenced by the country’s socio-political and economic climate. Decisions and appointments of key university administrators in public universities and the minister of higher education were largely political.

In addition, resources were limited and staff turnover was high. Universities just couldn’t finance themselves through tuition fees.

Different players in the higher education system – employers, the government, academics, students and their families – have different ideas about what “quality” means in higher education. The Zimbabwe Council for Higher Education understands quality as meeting set standards and benchmarks that emphasise the graduates’ knowledge and skills.

To some extent, academics and university administrators see quality as teaching and learning that gives students a mixture of skills and values such as social responsibility.

But lecturers must comply with the largely top-down approach to quality. They tend to do whatever will enhance students’ prospects of getting employment in a particular market.

The educators and students I interviewed acknowledged that developing the ability to work and to think critically were both central to higher education. But they admitted that these goals were hard to attain. This was because of the country’s constrained socio-political and economic environment. Academics and students felt that they couldn’t express themselves freely and critical thinking was suppressed.

Stuck on a road to nowhere
The study illustrates how an over-emphasis on creating human capital – skilled and knowledgeable graduates – limits higher education’s potential to foster broader human and social development.

University education should do more, especially in developing countries such as Zimbabwe that face not just economic, but also socio-political challenges. Before building more universities and enrolling more students, authorities and citizens should consider what quality education means in relation to the kind of society they want.

It’s possible to take a broader view of development, quality and the role of higher education. This broader approach – one that appreciates social justice – can equip graduates to address the country’s problems.

The road ahead
Universities can’t change a society on their own. But their teaching and learning practices can make an important difference.

Because quality teaching and learning means different things to different people, people need to talk about it democratically. Institutional and national policies must be informed by broad consultations to identify the knowledge, skills and values they want graduates to have.

University teaching and learning should emphasise freedom of expression and participation so that students can think and act critically beyond university.

Also, academics don’t automatically know how to teach just because they have a PhD. Universities should therefore ensure that academics learn how to teach and communicate their knowledge. Curriculum design, student assessment and feedback, as well as training of lecturers should all support this goal of human development.

When universities see quality in terms of human development, their role becomes more than production of workers in an economy. It gives them a mandate to nurture ethically responsible graduates. These more rounded graduates are better equipped to imagine an alternative future in pursuit of a better society, economically, politically and socially.

Patience Mukwambo: Researcher, University of the Free State

The Conversation

The Conversation

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