Johannesburg seeks to avert ‘ecological disaster’ from beetle-infested trees

Some of the millions of trees making up Johannesburg's man-made forest are pictured on October 22, 2018. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kim Harrisberg

Johannesburg seeks to avert ‘ecological disaster’ from beetle-infested trees
By Kim Harrisberg

JOHANNESBURG (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Researchers and city officials are racing to understand the extent of a beetle infestation damaging trees across South Africa that, if left unaddressed, could have a ripple effect on the climate, air quality and ecosystems.

The Polyphagous Shot Hole Borer (PSHB), indigenous to Southeast Asia, is a tiny beetle that drills holes into trees, depositing a fungus that can eventually kill its hosts.

Estimates of the infestation in Johannesburg, South Africa’s biggest city, range from 5,000 to well over 20,000 trees, while figures across the country are not yet known.

According to Jenny Moodley, spokeswoman for Johannesburg City Parks, trees – besides beautifying urban areas – store planet-warming carbon, filter air pollution, cool temperatures and regulate the climate.

“Removing them could impact the health of residents and the environment, as well as property values in the city,” she said, noting that cutting down the infested trees was a last resort.

The beetle infestation “could trigger an ecological disaster if not managed”, Moodley told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Researchers said the beetles had been spotted in nearly every South African province.

Environmentalists say protecting existing forests and restoring damaged ones prevents flooding, sequesters more carbon, limits climate change and protects biodiversity. [nL3N2760SV]

“Trees are a massive part of the urban landscape,” said Marcus Byrne, an Ig Nobel prize winner and entomologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

“They give us shade, clean pollutants, reduce movement of dust and cool the urban heat islands,” he said by phone.

Various solutions to the beetle problem have been proposed, including tree felling and chemical products, said Moodley.

But “no successful proof” has been presented for any one of them as a feasible strategy to roll out country-wide, she added.

“We have hit a stone wall,” she said.

The Johannesburg city website cautions residents against applying chemicals to infected trees, as doing so could contaminate ground water, destroy animal habitats and kill off pollinating insects like bees.

So far the city has removed 220 dead trees that are being chipped into smaller pieces, covered with plastic and left in the sun for three months to kill all the beetles in the wood.

But until more is known about the infestation, the city is cautious about cutting down any more trees, Moodley said.

She urged residents to plant indigenous trees that are not prone to infestation, report any signs of the beetle and take care when buying firewood that may be infested.

Community groups, meanwhile, have started marking beetle-ridden trees with “PSHB” stickers to alert city residents.

The beetle is thought to have entered the country around 2012 on wood pallets, said Wilhelm de Beer, an associate professor in microbiology at the University of Pretoria.

“We do believe this is a risk to other southern African countries,” warned de Beer, who is running workshops on the problem with researchers across 15 African nations.

The beetle attacks more than 300 hard and softwood species of different sizes, noted de Beer, who is working with experts in California where a major outbreak killed millions of trees over the past decade.

Both de Beer and Byrne said more research and data were needed before solutions could be proposed.

Byrne is seeking funding to analyse satellite imagery going back 10 years, and using Google Street View and citizen-gathered data to build maps of the infestation across Johannesburg.

De Beer is researching the use of a natural agent, such as an insect or fungus, to control the infestation.

“We are already losing trees to drought,” de Beer added. “We do not need to lose any more.”

(Reporting by Kim Harrisberg @kimharrisberg; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Death toll in South Africa rains approaching 70, official says

Family members speak to a police officer after one of their family member's body was recovered from under the mud after heavy rains caused by flooding in Mariannhill near Durban, South Africa, April 25, 2019. REUTERS/Rogan Ward

DURBAN/JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – Almost 70 people have been killed in South Africa after torrential rains along the eastern coast, an official said on Thursday, and rescuers are still recovering bodies.

KwaZulu-Natal province, where most of the deaths occurred after the downpours led to flooding and mudslides, has heavy rain every year, but they rarely kill so many people in such a short space of time.

A wreckage of a vehicle remains after a body was recovered from under the mud after heavy rains caused by flooding in Marianhill near Durban, South Africa, April 25, 2019. REUTERS/Rogan Ward

A wreckage of a vehicle remains after a body was recovered from under the mud after heavy rains caused by flooding in Marianhill near Durban, South Africa, April 25, 2019. REUTERS/Rogan Ward

The number of people killed was “approaching 70”, Lennox Mabaso, a spokesman for the provincial Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs department, said by phone.

“I don’t recall that in history,” he said, attributing the severity of the storm and its impact on the population to climate change.

A Reuters witness saw rescuers come to collect the body of a woman who had been dug out of the mud by locals. Mabaso said a more precise death toll would be given later on Thursday.

Eyewitnesses recounted on Wednesday how flood waters and mudslides crashed through houses, many with people inside, and destroyed roads and other infrastructure.

The rains carved chunks out of hills and roads in the region, with cars, tin roofs and other rubble swept into the deep muddy trenches left behind.

In other places, people buried their dead on muddy hillsides churned up by the storm, marking their resting place with simple wooden crosses.

Vanetia Phakula, a senior forecaster at the South African Weather Service, said the storm was not currently seen as unusual, though the level of rainfall might have been higher than normal.

Over 100 millimeters of rain was recorded as falling at numerous stations within the area between Monday morning and Tuesday, she said.

Phakula said the high death toll could instead be explained by the flooding and mudslides occurring in more highly populated areas.

“Hence the death toll is what it is today,” she said.

While more rain was expected on Thursday it was not expected to be heavy, and the service was forecasting dry weather in most areas by Friday, she added.

(Reporting by Rogan Ward in Durban and Emma Rumney in Johannesburg; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

South Africa’s Cape Town faces severe economic troubles over drought

Sand blows across a normally submerged area at Theewaterskloof dam near Cape Town, South Africa, January 21, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – Rating’s agency Moody’s warned on Monday the water crisis affecting Cape Town would cause the city’s borrowing to rise sharply and the provincial economy to shrink the longer the situation lasted.

A severe drought afflicting South Africa’s Western Cape province is expected to cut agricultural output by 20 percent in 2018, decimating the wheat crop and reducing apple, grape and pear exports to Europe, according to national government.

The City is bracing for “Day Zero” in late August when its taps could run dry.

Moody’s said in a report that one of the most direct impacts would be on Cape Town’s operating revenues, as 10 percent of them are from water charges.

The ratings agency estimates capital expenditure related to water and sanitation infrastructure could be as much as 12.7 billion rand ($1 billion) over the next five years.

“The long-term solutions are likely to require significant capital and operating expenditure,” Daniel Mazibuko, an analyst at Moody’s said.

The drought also threatens to slow South Africa’s economic rebound which has been fueled by a surge in agricultural production. Cape town generated nearly 10 percent of the country’s total gross domestic product in 2016.

Last Tuesday, Statistics South Africa said the economy grew 3.1 percent in October-December, the highest rate since the second quarter of 2016, after expanding by a revised 2.3 percent in the third quarter. Agriculture showed a 37.5 percent expansion after growing 41.1 percent in the previous quarter.

Government has declared drought a national disaster after its southern and western regions including Cape Town got hit hard by the drought, freeing extra funds to tackle the crisis.

(Reporting by Mfuneko Toyana; Editing by James Macharia)

Sporadic violence in Johannesburg as South Africans protest against Zuma

Demonstrators carry banners as they take part in a protest calling for the removal of South Africa's President Jacob Zuma in Johannesburg. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

By Ed Stoddard and TJ Strydom

PRETORIA/JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – Sporadic violence broke out in Johannesburg as more than 50,000 people marched in South African cities to protest against President Jacob Zuma on Friday, demanding he quit after a cabinet reshuffle triggered the latest crisis of his presidency.

Zuma’s sacking of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan in the reshuffle last Thursday has outraged allies and opponents alike, undermined his authority and caused rifts in the ruling African National Congress (ANC), which has governed South Africa since the end of white-minority rule in 1994.

Fitch on Friday followed S&P Global Ratings and downgraded South Africa to “junk”, citing Gordhan’s dismissal as one reason. S&P had issued its downgrade on South Africa in an unscheduled review on Monday.

In Johannesburg, police “fired rubber bullets at protesters who were attacking other protesters with stones. Four protesters sustained minor injuries,” Johannesburg Metro Police Department spokesman Wayne Minaar said. Some ANC backers were trying to breach a cordon separating them from members of the opposition Democratic Alliance.

Elsewhere in the city, the marches were peaceful.

Mmusi Maimane, leader of the DA, which had called for the marches, held a rally of more than 10,000 people that was calm, a few streets from the scene of the violence. Some held placards saying “Fire Zuma”.

“Our country is in crisis,” Maimane, who wore a bullet-proof vest under his shirt after the DA said it had received threats to the protest’s leaders, said. “The time to act is now.”

“We are unhappy about his leadership because he does not seem to care about the people,” said Syriana Maesela, 65, a retiree carrying a South African flag. “The irony is I did the same thing in 1976 when I was a student. I also marched then,” she said, referring protests against the apartheid regime.

About 10,000 gathered in a field outside the Union Buildings, the site of Zuma’s offices in Pretoria, South Africa’s capital.

A PROTEST SURVIVOR

Zuma, 74, has faced protests in the past. The ANC on Wednesday rejected calls for Zuma to quit, and analysts doubted marches would shake the president. It said its members in parliament would vote against a motion of no confidence in Zuma on April 18, a key rallying call for the marchers on Friday.

And Zuma supporters also gathered. About 300 camouflage-clad veterans of the ANC’s now-disbanded Umkhonto we Sizwe (MKMVA ) military wing ringed the party’s Luthuli House building in downtown Johannesburg, mounting mock parades and singing in support of the president.

Some clad in the yellow, green and gold colors of the ANC also danced, waving placards emblazoned with the words: “I’m prepared to die for my ANC” and “Hands off our President”.

“They are free to march freely but not to try and remove a government that was elected democratically,” said Kebby Maphatsoe, the head of the veterans group and also Deputy Minister of Defence and Military Veterans.

“Let them wait for 2019 and we will take them on, but the ones that want to remove it undemocratically, MKMVA will rise up to the occasion.”

The rand <ZAR=D3> weakened slightly after Fitch’s announcement. The currency has tumbled more than 11 percent since March 27, when Zuma ordered Gordhan to return home from overseas talks with investors, days before firing him.

“The bottom line is we are paying for the consequences of the political regime that has lost direction,” said Gary van Staden, analyst at NKC African Economics. The downgrade will add to pressure on Zuma to leave office, he said.

Capital Economics Africa economist John Ashbourne said in a note that although there was mounting opposition to Zuma “we think that the most likely outcome is still that Mr. Zuma will decide the timing of his own exit.”

PARLIAMENT

In Cape Town, motorists hooted in support of the march as about 10,000 people gathered at various points in the city, including outside parliament.

“It’s not simply a question of his removal. It is about the renewal of the ANC and democracy,” said Gerrald Ray, 56, a business strategist.

About 4,000 people were also marching in the coastal city of Durban, the main city in the KwaZulu Natal province, an ANC stronghold.

“We need to unite and fight this corruption,” said Michelle Fortune, 48, a manager who declined to say where she works. She wore a South African flag bandana.

Meanwhile, members of the ANC Youth League gathered in downtown Durban, singing “Awuleth’umshini wami”, a song popularized by Zuma, which means “bring me my gun” and held placards supporting the president.

(Additional reporting by Marius Bosch, Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo, Nqobile Dludla and Tanisha Heiberg in Johannesburg, Wendell Roelf in Cape Town and Rogan Ward in Durban; Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Larry King)

Patients trapped after roof collapse at Johannesburg hospital

Rescue workers are seen at a site of a roof collapse at Johannesburg's Charlotte Maxeke state hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – Patients and workers were trapped after a roof collapsed at Johannesburg’s Charlotte Maxeke state hospital on Thursday, an incident that highlighted the funding shortages in South Africa’s public health system, officials said.

The roof caved at the hospital reception area as construction workers were trying to seal a leak after a heavy storm, officials said. Five people suffered minor injuries and it was not clear how many people were still trapped.

Two of the injured were patients, two were construction workers while one person was a hospital staff member.

The hospital, one of South Africa’s biggest, is nicknamed Joburg Gen and is used for academic purposes due to its proximity to the University of the Witwatersand.

“We’re not sure how many people are trapped. At the moment the rescue team is on site clearing the debris as fast and as safely as they can,” Gwen Ramokgopa, the head of the provincial health department, said at the hospital.

She said contractors “were working to seal the roof because it was leaking and the structure caved in.”

Television footage showed rescue workers trying to remove rubble and steel pipes to try and reach those trapped by the debris as heavy rain pounded the South African commercial capital.

State hospitals in South Africa have been struggling with persistent underfunding for staff, equipment and facilities.

The roof collapse comes amid public outrage at the provincial health department over the deaths of at least 94 psychiatric patients who died after being moved from a licensed home to unregistered facilities.

(Reporting by James Macharia and TJ Strydom; Editing by Ed Cropley)

South African police break up anti-immigrant protests

Somali nationals argue with police during clashes in Pretoria, South Africa, February 24, 2017. REUTERS/ James Oatway

By TJ Strydom

PRETORIA (Reuters) – South African police fired tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets to disperse rival marches by hundreds of protesters in Pretoria on Friday, after mobs looted stores this week believed to belong to immigrants.

Anti-immigrant violence has flared sporadically in South Africa against a background of near-record unemployment, with foreigners being accused of taking jobs from citizens and involvement in crime.

Armed police had formed a barrier between rival crowds of citizens and non-nationals marching in Pretoria, but both sides began shouting at one another and brandishing rocks and sticks, prompting police to disperse the angry mobs.

Shops were shuttered in Marabastad, an area of western Pretoria where many foreign nationals have their stores, and roads were blocked as the marchers gathered. Some of the foreigners carried rocks and sticks, saying they were ready to protect their stores.

One Somali shopowner, 37, said he feared for his life. “My shops get looted a few times a year,” he said.

The marches follow the looting this week of at least 20 small businesses believed to belong to Nigerian and Pakistani immigrants. Residents said they had attacked the shops because they were dens of prostitution and drug dealing. Some said they had lost jobs to the foreigners.

A 34-year old South African, who declined to be named, said a Zimbabwean took his job at a manufacturing plant because he was willing to work for less.

“The police must leave us alone so we can sort them out,” he said, pointing at a group of foreign shop owners.

Random acts of violence, looting and destruction of property had occurred, Acting National Police Commissioner Khomotso Phahlane said.

“Over 24-hour period, 156 have been arrested,” Phahlane told a news conference, and “those inciting violence will face prosecution.” It was unclear how many of those in custody were South Africans and how many foreigners.

President Jacob Zuma condemned acts of violence between citizens and non-nationals, his office said in a statement on Friday. Zuma appealed to citizens not to blame all crime on non-nationals.

Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba on Thursday acknowledged violence had flared up against foreigners this year, adding that “unfortunately, xenophobic violence is not new in South Africa.”

In retaliation, Nigerian protesters vandalized the head office of South African mobile phone company MTN in Abuja on Thursday.

Earlier this week, Nigeria’s foreign ministry said it would summon South Africa’s envoy to raise its concerns over “xenophobic attacks” on Nigerians, other Africans and Pakistanis.

(Writing by James Macharia, editing by Larry King)

No end in sight for South Africa’s historic drought

Lake St Lucia is almost completely dry due to drought conditions in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, northeast of Durban, South Africa

CAPE TOWN (Reuters) – South Africa remains in the grip of a drought that is not expected to ease soon, a government task team said on Thursday, putting pressure on inflation as the cost of staple foods soars.

The long-range forecast showed below normal rainfall expected and “therefore little relief is anticipated in the coming months,” local government minister Des van Rooyen, chairman of an inter-ministerial task team on drought, told a media briefing in Cape Town.

Van Rooyen, flanked by Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane and Agriculture Minister Senzeni Zokwana, said there was no need to declare a national disaster even as the national planting area for maize declined by 30 percent.

The drought has also reduced the national cattle herd by 15 percent with no relief in sight.

“About 370 large commercial farmers around the country… were at risk of going under due to them not being able to service their debts as a result of the drought,” he said.

The cost of staple foods, such as maize, has sky rocketed and had a knock-on effect on inflation, the central bank has said. Inflation is running at 6 percent.

Dam levels have fallen to 53 percent as an El Nino weather pattern, which ended in May, triggered drought conditions across southern Africa and placing millions at risk of food shortages.

Large swathes of scorched land decimated the maize crop, with current forecasts pointing to a 26.6 percent lower harvest this year. Temperatures soared to historic peaks in 2015, the driest year since records started in 1904.

Van Rooyen said water restrictions had been imposed in some provinces. Residents and businesses in the economic hub of Johannesburg are being urged to conserve water usage.

(Reporting by Wendell Roelf; Editing by James Macharia)

South African twins planned attacks on U.S. Embassy, Jewish buildings

U.S. Embassy in South Africa

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – South African twins arrested over the weekend were planning attacks on the U.S. Embassy in the capital, Pretoria, as well as on buildings owned by Jewish people, police said on Monday.

Four South Africans, including the twins, Brandon-Lee and Tony-Lee Thulsie, faced charges in court ranging from conspiracy to firearms offences, the spokesman for the elite police unit Hawks, Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi, said.

The four, arrested in Johannesburg on Sunday, will be detained in custody until July 19, when their case will be heard, Mulaudzi said.

Quoting the charge sheet, the News24 news organization said the twins had been attempting to fly to Syria. Security officials say there are no known militant groups operating in South Africa, but Britain and the United States warned in June of a high threat of attacks against foreigners in the country’s shopping malls.

Mulaudzi named the other two siblings as Fatima and Ibrahim Mohammed Patel.

“The indictment does talk to issues of terror plots that they were planning against the U.S. Embassy as well as Jewish Buildings in the country,” he said, referring to the twins.

“The twins have been charged with conspiracy,” Mulaudzi added. “The Patel siblings have been charged with the violation of the Firearms Control Act for now.”

The twins’ preliminary charge sheet states that their conspiracy occurred between October 2015 and July 8 this year, local newspaper the Times said on its online service.

In Washington, State Department spokesman John Kirby said at a daily news briefing that the United States applauded Hawks for making the arrests and had “full confidence in the South African judicial system to handle this case according to internationally accepted best practices”.

(Reporting by Nqobile Dludla, additional reporting by Mohammad Zargham in Washington, writing by James Macharia; editing by Ralph Boulton and Cynthia Osterman)

Looters ransack shops on third day of South African vote violence

Shell of a burnt out truck

By Dinky Mkhize

PRETORIA (Reuters) – Looters raided shops and burned-out cars blocked roads in South Africa’s capital on Wednesday, the third day of violence triggered by the ruling party’s choice of a mayoral candidate for local polls.

Police said rioters were targeting foreigners’ shops as public anger mounted over economic hardships in the build-up to Aug. 3 elections likely to become a referendum on President Jacob Zuma’s leadership.

Residents of Pretoria’s townships started setting cars and buses alight on Monday night after the ruling African National Congress’ (ANC) named a candidate in the Tshwane municipality where the capital city is located, overruling the choice of regional branches.

Violence flared again on Tuesday night and continued in parts of the capital on Wednesday, Tshwane Metro police spokesman Console Tleane said.

“There is calm in some hot spots, (but) the navigation of the streets is difficult because of the rubble and the debris,” he told eNCA television.

Protesters were continuing to clash with police and “a disproportionate part of the looting was taking place at shops owned by foreign nationals,” he added.

Foreigners, many of them from other African countries, last suffered a wave of attacks in April last year, by crowds blaming them for taking jobs and business.

Analysts warned of more unrest in the commercial hub of Gauteng province, which includes Pretoria and Johannesburg.

“Intra-ANC, election-related, factional violence is being ignored by markets trading on external factors, but is worrying,” London-based Nomura emerging markets analyst Peter Attard Montalto said in a note.

FACTIONS

The mayoral dispute flared at the weekend after an ANC member was shot dead on Sunday as party factions met to decide on a candidate for mayor of Pretoria’s Tshwane municipality.

The ANC leadership then named senior party member and former cabinet minister Thoko Didiza as its candidate for Tshwane, overriding regional branch members and refusing to back down as the violence mounted.

The ANC said it picked the candidate as a compromise between two rival factions in Tshwane. But critics say the decision by the party, which has been in power since the end of white-minority rule in 1994, showed that it is losing its touch in areas – including Pretoria – where it was once unassailable.

Zuma survived impeachment in April after Constitutional Court ruled that he breached the constitution by ignoring an order by the anti-graft watchdog to repay some of the $16 million in state funds spent renovating his home.

“Ahead of the August elections, disgruntled ANC supporters in Gauteng will be motivated by the Pretoria riots to stage further protests to demonstrate the unpopular ANC leadership’s decisions,” Robert Besseling, head of the EXX Africa business risk intelligence group said in a note.

(Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Britain warns of possible terrorist attacks in South Africa

The iconic Table Mountain is seen behind a popular tourist destination in Cape Town

By James Macharia

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – Britain has warned of a high threat of attacks against foreigners in popular shopping malls in South Africa in an alert issued at the weekend, when a similar advisory was published by the United States embassy in Pretoria.

Africa’s most industrialized country has a significant expatriate and tourist population but has seldom been associated with Islamist militancy. South Africa’s government said the country was safe following the U.S. warning on Saturday.

It was not immediately clear what triggered the warnings. Security officials say there are no known militant groups operating in South Africa. It has only a small Muslim population.

The British government first issued its statement on Saturday and was marked as “still current” on its travel advice website on Monday.

The warning identified upmarket shopping areas and malls in the commercial hub of Johannesburg and Cape Town, widely regarded as South Africa’s tourism capital, as the main target areas in the suspected planned attacks.

“There is a high threat from terrorism. Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places visited by foreigners such as shopping areas in Johannesburg and Cape Town,” the British government said.

“There is considered to be a heightened threat of terrorist attack globally against UK interests and British nationals, from groups or individuals motivated by the conflict in Iraq and Syria. You should be vigilant at this time.”

On Saturday, the U.S. warned its citizens of possible attacks by Islamist militants on U.S. facilities or shopping malls in South Africa during the month of Ramadan.

The U.S. issued a similar warning in September, but no Islamist attack was reported.

State Security Minister David Mahlobo said in a statement that South Africa remained “a strong and stable democratic country”, adding that there was no immediate danger posed by the alert.

Analysts said that a terrorist attack in South Africa was feasible, citing economic hardships that could be a catalyst for radicalizing South Africa’s Muslims.

Economic growth is seen below one percent this year and unemployment is at its highest ever, near 27 percent.

“Both in terms of sources of financing from older religious conservative generations and of a growing community of economically side-lined, mostly young Muslims,” Robert Besseling, head of the EXX Africa business risk intelligence group said in a note.

Jasmine Opperman, the Africa Director for Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC) said if Islamist extremist groups ever do decide to target South Africa, the nation is unprepared to protect itself.

“Shopping malls and tourist destinations are areas that are particularly prone to terror attacks,” Opperman wrote in a note.

“In South Africa, security is usually outsourced to private security companies, primarily aimed at preventing petty crimes such as theft,” she said.

Johannesburg’s Sandton City, one of Africa’s biggest shopping malls located in a wealthy business district, said it had improved security following the warnings.

Nomzamo Radebe, CEO of JHI Retail, the company that manages the shopping complex popular with tourists said they were “on high alert and additional security measures have been implemented,” said without giving details.

Islamists have attacked shopping malls on the continent before, including Kenya’s Westgate building where Somali militant group al Shabaab massacred at least 67 people, including foreigners, and held out for four days as security forces laid siege to the complex.

(Editing by Richard Balmforth)