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German Chancellor Angela Merkel invited one of the greatest collections of women leaders ever for a G7 meeting inside her vast concrete-and-glass Chancellery last September. You could find the director of the World Health Organization (Margaret Chan) and the CEO of General Motors (Mary Barra). The prime minister of Norway (Erna Sold berg) and the former prime minister of Denmark (Helle Thorning-Schmidt). A Nobel Peace Prize winner (Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf) and a queen (Rania of Jordan).

And at a circular table set for about two dozen, sitting directly across from Merkel: a former Microsoft manager turned philanthropist, Melinda Gates.

After Merkel danke schöns her guests and listens to reports on women’s political participation, health and economic empowerment, she opens up the floor. Gates, wearing a fitted inky-blue suit and reading glasses, speaks first, giving a precise, impassioned four-minute address.

“When you get women in roles of leadership, we make things happen,” Gates says. “It takes us using our voice, and it also takes us making investments, huge investments, in women and girls.”

Alone in this room of world leaders, Gates can single-handedly make that happen. Prime ministers have parliaments; CEOs have boards; Melinda Gates has a $41.3 billion endowment, and she can deploy it in pretty much any manner that she and husband Bill, the world’s richest person, see fit.

This represents a personal transformation. For the first decade and a half of its existence, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation deployed its remarkable scale toward eradicating polio and malaria, and experimentation in education issues. But over the past few years, Melinda Gates has embraced having her name on the letterhead of the largest-ever charitable foundation, along with the influence that comes with that. She has become the most powerful person on the planet whose singular focus is women and girls.

“I kept looking for the advocate who would champion these issues,” she says over lunch at the iconic Hotel Adlon Kempinski, during a break from Merkel’s forum.

Gates, 51, has the air of a down-to-earth technocrat, traveling without an entourage but rather with reams of data and determination.

“I knew it had to be a woman. We would talk inside the foundation, ‘Could we get this person or that person?’ I considered other women leaders. But I couldn’t find the one who embodied to me the voice of women around the world. And so I thought, ‘If I’m the one, then I just need to do it. I have to have courage and not worry’.”

Women account for six out of 10 of the world’s poorest and two-thirds of the illiterate. “Excessive female mortality” in the developing world, in the parlance of the International Monetary Fund, means some 3.9 million women and girls are “missing” annually: about two-fifths are never born, one-sixth die in early childhood and more than one-third die during their reproductive years.

“What’s the most pressing issue of our time?” asks Gates. “It really is ending poverty in the world. And we know to do that you have to put women and girls at the center.” Poverty is sexist, and Gates is betting billions that it can be stemmed through the gender historically ignored.

Melinda French Gates was born and bred in Dallas, the daughter of an aerospace-engineer father and a homemaker mother who helped run a family rental property business on the side.

“That was literally how they were going to put us through college, and we all knew it,” she says referencing her sister and two younger brothers. On weekends, the kids cleaned and fixed up the rental properties and kept books on the family’s Apple III.

The valedictorian of her all-girls Catholic school and captain of her high school’s drill team, Gates earned a bachelor’s in computer science and economics and an M.B.A. from Duke in five years, consciously shaving a year so she could get into the workforce faster.

“She always knew what she wanted,” says her sister, Susan French. “She just has this confidence within her. Once she sets her eyes on the next project, her next goal, then it’s all out.”

That next project, in 1987, was Microsoft, as a product manager, where the founder famously asked her out in the company parking lot.

“I worked around a lot of really intelligent guys in college because there were very few women,” she says, describing her initial attraction.

“When I look back, Bill was the same kind of guy I was hanging out with in college. I had a lot of respect for them, and they had respect for me. I was definitely attracted to his brilliant mind, but beyond that, his curiosity. And he has a huge sense of fun. I love that wry side of him.”

The couple dated for seven years before marrying in 1994 in Hawaii. In 1996, Gates, now a general manager at Microsoft, became pregnant with their first child, Jennifer, and chose to stay home.

“That was completely her decision,” says Bill Gates. “I was a little surprised, but that really made sense for her. Then came kids two and three.”

Fast-forward two decades: Jennifer is now 19 and a sophomore at Stanford, with Rory, 16, and Phoebe, 13, leaning on Mom increasingly less. Like many mothers staring down an empty nest, Gates went through a period of intense soul-searching. Now what?

And so she began digging ever deeper into the work at the Gates Foundation, which is concentrated primarily on global health and development, and making stunning progress in eradicating polio, malaria and HIV, and promoting vaccines and sanitation. It should be noted, though, that the foundation “has not been a pioneer when it comes to advocating for women’s health,” says Linsey McGoey, author of No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy.

Increasingly, Gates started focusing less on the foundation’s vertical efforts but rather on how to approach what it was already doing horizontally. Specifically, to fund initiatives in these areas that take the world’s most vulnerable women and girls into account. Yes, there was an empathetic component, but Gates looked through the lens of ROI.

Muhammad Yunus won a Nobel Peace Prize for microloan practices that targeted women in the developing world, recognizing they’re more likely to steward money effectively and channel it into the family. Bill Gates has saved tens of thousands of lives through immunization efforts; Melinda Gates began to encourage grants that took into account that women are more likely than men to take their kids to get immunized.

”Women’s issues are the hard issues.”

“When I was first at the foundation I thought of women’s issues as the ‘soft issues,’ and I didn’t want to be seen as soft,” says Gates. “In fact, it’s just the opposite. Women’s issues are the hard issues. You want to get at violence or child marriage? Those are hard. Warren [Buffett] always says you have to swing for the fences.”

Melinda Gates’ public coming out also traces to Berlin. For years, even as she worked at the foundation, she guarded her privacy. (“Bill was already a public figure, so I knew what that half looked like.”) But eventually she decided that advocacy for a cause means putting your face out there.

“I tell my daughters to have their voice in this world, and it became clear I needed to role-model that.”

So three years ago, she came to Germany to give a TedX talk focusing on family planning and universal birth control access. Her original $70-million-a-year commitment was doubled three months later, and she just announced an additional $120 million.

Welcome to the limelight, Melinda. The Vatican’s office newspaper, under Pope Benedict XVI, published a front page headline, “Birth Control and Disinformation: The Risks of Philanthropy”, that accused her of spreading lies. A tough rebuke for a Catholic who says she prays or meditates daily (“whatever you want to call it”).

“It’s a really uncomfortable place to go,” says Gates. “To talk about sex, reproduction, tools. But these were things we were talking about inside the foundation.”

And Gates learned two valuable lessons. First, that when she speaks, by dint of her conviction and resources, the world listens.

“In giving voice to family planning, once I saw we could actually move resources on the global stage, I thought, ‘There are other women’s issues I have to take on’.”

Second, she could take a punch. “They say how mistaken Mrs. Gates was, and she must have been misled by the people who wanted to make money selling reproductive health tools,” says Bill Gates. In response he gave her the newspaper as a gift, which she keeps framed in her office at the foundation’s Seattle headquarters. “I gave her a copy because she decided she would speak up and deal with the controversy. It’s a complex area, but she took it on.”

Those who watch the foundation reject the idea that Melinda operates as a number two to Bill’s number one. “Anyone who’s paying attention understands that she’s playing a leading role,” says Aaron Dorfman of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, a watchdog for the sector.

“We certainly weren’t working as equals when we started together,” says Melinda Gates. “I was down several levels at Microsoft, and he was the CEO. We’ve had to change to really be coequals. It’s not something that immediately happens overnight, but we’re both committed to it. We needed to talk behind the scenes when it wasn’t working. But I think that’s come now.

“We literally hand meetings and issues to one another, and we’re very comfortable about when to make a decision without the other one and when we should do it together. And the together isn’t always because of a dollar issue. It’s more about, ‘Will the other person care about this decision as much as I do?’ ”

“Everything I’ve ever done, I’ve always had a partner,” says Bill Gates. “In the early days of Microsoft it was Paul Allen who helped come up with the ideas and build the early things. Then it became Steve Ballmer, who I met at college and came in and helped run the company and made it super successful. Now it’s Melinda at the foundation.”

She carries the same title as her husband: cofounder and cochair. (Bill’s dad is another cochair and Warren Buffett, who is funnelling his fortune into the foundation, serves as cotrustee.)

“She and Bill are the final deciders,” adds Susan Desmond-Hellmann, the foundation’s CEO, who started in 2014. “The approval process that starts with annual budgets and strategies involves the two of them as equal partners.”

Gates’ family planning initiatives quickly segued to those who got pregnant, specifically maternal and prenatal health. Once you spend time there, infant health is a natural extension. Then a commitment to expand educational opportunities for girls. And what are these young women supposed to do when they get out of school? Gates understands most aren’t going to get paid to work in developing countries. So she’s green-lit numerous programs that encourage micro-entrepreneurship, such as small-plot farming and mobile banking.

The result is a cradle-to-motherhood suite of initiatives for women and girls. The foundation doesn’t break out how much it spends in this area, mostly because it was so woven into its $3.9 billion in outlays in 2014. And it measures how each program specifically helps women and girls.

For example, the foundation backs M-KOPA, a Kenya-based organization that manufactures solar-powered lamps. On paper it’s a gender-neutral program providing the kind of personal power supply that relieves off-the-grid families of the costs and dangers of kerosene lamps. But it disproportionately helps girls, who often do homework at night after a day of chores.

Another partner, GSMA, brings mobile money accounts to the underbanked. Again, a bigger deal for women – just 37% in developing countries hold bank accounts, and many are intentionally excluded from formal financial systems.

“When you go on the ground, in places in India or inner Bangladesh, you kind of don’t want to hear what the women tell you,” she says. “But when you really sit and take it all in, you later go, ‘Oh my God, they’re right’. And this group of women helped me realize that all these other issues I see in the developing world, those issues need to be addressed, too. They’re all part and parcel of the same thing.”

The Gates Foundation is also keen on funding pilots in this area: Successes are rewarded with more money; failures are learning opportunities. Megan White Mukuria is typical. She founded Kenya-based ZanaAfrica Group, an initiative focused on sanitary pads. Girls in many low-income countries stay away from school during their period or even drop out, with numbers as high as one in 10 in Africa.

ZanaAfrica’s grant timeline neatly follows the arc of the foundation’s gender focus. After a $100,000 test phase grant in 2011 to develop sanitary pads from local materials such as bamboo or jute, Mukuria was turned down for a Phase 2 proposal to test distribution strategies and approaches to health education. That “no” went to “maybe yes” two months later and turned into a definite $1 million three months after that. Late 2015, ZanaAfrica received a $2.6 million grant.

“They [the Gates Foundation] initially couldn’t fund the scale-up because sanitary pads are outside their mandate in sanitation, which is all about the toilet,” Mukuria says. “But they literally just winked at each other and said, ‘We have to do this’. And if they didn’t do it, nobody would.”

Expect more such grants in 2016 through a loquaciously named program: the Putting Women and Girls at the Center of Development Challenge. Some 20 awardees will net more than $20 million in grants aimed at gender-specific projects. Small money for Gates but a signal that she’s opening up to groups that see women and girls as the primary goal rather than a beneficial by-product, and a first step toward what Gates hopes might be a clearinghouse for those looking to help in this area.

“Everyone tries to read the tea leaves to understand what’s going to be in favor or out of favor,” says Dorfman, the philanthropy watchdog, “and many groups adjust their work plans accordingly.” That dovetails with a consistent criticism of the Gates Foundation—that it wields too much power and makes too many decisions in an echo chamber.

“Whether Mr. and Mrs. Gates prefer it that way or not,” says the author McGoey, “there’s this perception that the strong directional influence played by the executives is something to be celebrated rather than seen potentially as a cause for problems.”

“My experience has been that she [Melinda] likes to get [others’] views,” says Desmond-Hellmann. “We have people at the foundation who have spent their entire careers on a technical area, say, somebody’s done tuberculosis their whole life.” Asked if anyone says no to Melinda Gates, she laughs. “People do say, ‘Yes, that’s not possible.’ That’s more likely than no.”

“[We are accountable] to the people of the world, honestly,” adds Gates. “I do hope that at the end of our lives somebody will look back and say, ‘Melinda and Bill set out to change the world on behalf of poor people. Did they? Are more kids alive because of the work they did? Are fewer people getting malaria? Are more women getting contraceptives?’ That’s who we are accountable to.”

Back in Berlin, after a state dinner at the Chancellery, Gates heads off to her private jet. Across town from the airport and a world apart from the halls of power she just left is a government complex where thousands of Syrians and other refugees are waiting to register for asylum.

It’s impossible to ignore all the women tending to overstretched strollers filled with little ones and a life’s detritus sagging in plastic bags. They have their own tent for privacy, including nursing. Men stand in overcrowded lines, anxious to be called to sign up for IDs, funds and services. Having trekked all the way to Berlin, the refugees have nothing to do now but wait.

“When you see a picture of a child washed up on the beach — or a mother — so many of the faces you see are women,” she says. “And even if they get across the border, they’re put into camps, which are especially horrible for women in terms of the violence and rape. They’re disproportionately affected. So my heart breaks. It’s not a small heartbreak, it’s a huge heartbreak.”

The Gates Foundation is engineered to move quickly — the couple has dictated that all assets must be put to work and the organization wound down within 20 years of the last cofounder’s passing. So Gates is investing some $17.5 million around the Middle East refugee crisis — an investment that the world sees as alleviating suffering, and that Melinda Gates sees as another step in improving the lives of poor women.

The article first appeared in the December 14, 2015 issue of FORBES. The year references have been accordingly changed.

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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