Apple launches its contactless payment service in South Africa

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – Apple Inc. introduced its contactless payment service in South Africa on Tuesday, as the global tech giant looks to cash in on the mobile payments boom in the country.

The use of digital finance and payments systems has surged in South Africa and elsewhere as the coronavirus crisis has prompted a shift towards e-commerce and contactless payments.

Apple Pay has joined Samsung’s digital wallet offering, Samsung Pay, which was launched in South Africa in 2018.

Apple said it had launched the service without giving details.

The service is available via three South African banks, namely Absa Group, Nedbank Group and Discovery Bank, which is part of the Discovery group.

Zuma corruption trial over arms deal set for May

A corruption case against ex-President Jacob Zuma and French defence company Thales over a $2bn state arms deal will start in May, a South Africa court says.

Mr Zuma faces 16 charges , including fraud, racketeering and money laundering – all of which he denies.

Mr Zuma is accused of illegally accepting annual payments from Thales after the weapons deal took place in 1999. Mr Zuma became South Africa’s deputy president in 1999 and president a decade later.

His financial adviser, Schabir Shaikh, was found guilty of trying to solicit bribes on his behalf from the French arms firm and was jailed in 2005.

The case against Mr Zuma was dropped shortly before he ran for president in 2009.

It was postponed again last year after Thales challenged the racketeering charges. But on Tuesday a judge at the Pietermaritzburg High Court said the trial would start on 17 May.

Source: BBC

South Africa turns to Johnson & Johnson Covid jab

The South African government has outlined its amended coronavirus immunisation plans. 

They were put on hold when a trial suggested that the AstraZeneca jabs which were due to be distributed were less effective against a local variant of the virus. 

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said a Johnson and Johnson vaccine would be used to immunise health workers, even though it has yet to be approved in South Africa. 

He said it would be deployed as part of an implementation study. 

The minister said doses of the Pfizer vaccine had also been secured.

He added that the authorities were considering selling doses of AstraZeneca vaccine the country had bought.

“Why not sell the AstraZeneca … well it’s an option. We will consider it, … first our scientists must tell us what to do with it,” he told a news conference.

Coronavirus: South Africa shuts land borders

Infections are expected to rise further as travellers return from holidays. Infections are expected to rise further as travellers return from holidays

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa has announced that its land borders will be closed to most travellers until 15 February, in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus.

In a televised address on Monday night, President Ramaphosa said the pandemic in South Africa is currently at its most devastating, with infection numbers far exceeding the peak experienced in the first wave. 

He said there have been nearly 190,000 reported infections since New Year’s Day, and there are currently more than 15,000 people in hospital with Covid-19. 

The province of KwaZulu Natal has seen the most cases per head of population in recent weeks, but Mr Ramaphosa said infection numbers in Gauteng are growing exponentially and are expected to increase further as travellers return from their holidays.

Many restrictions put in place at the end of December will be extended. 

The ban on alcohol sales remains in force, beaches and parks in hotpots remain shut, and social gatherings are still banned. 

President Ramaphosa warned that funerals continue to be super-spreader events. 

“Funerals have become a death trap for many of our people,” he said, as he urged people to stay at home. 

President Ramaphosa said the vaccine programme that South Africa plans to undertake will be the most ambitious logistical project in the country’s history. 

He said that 20 million doses of the vaccine had already been secured, for delivery in the coming months, and that negotiations are ongoing with a number of different manufacturers.

South Africa coronavirus variant: What is the risk?

A new variant of coronavirus circulating in South Africa is now being seen in other countries, including the UK.

Experts are urgently studying it to understand what risk it poses.

What is the new variant? 

All viruses, including the one that causes Covid-19, mutate. 

These tiny genetic changes happen as the virus makes new copies of itself to spread and thrive. 

Most are inconsequential, and a few can even be harmful to the virus’s survival, but some can make it more infectious or threatening to the host – humans. 

There are now many thousands of different versions, or variants, of the pandemic virus circulating. But experts’ concerns focus on a small number of these.

One is the South African variant called 501.V2.

What do experts say?

The South African variant carries a mutation called E484K.

It’s different to another recently discovered variant that scientists have been studying in the UK.

Both the new South African and UK ‘Kent’ variants appear to be more contagious, which is a problem because tougher restrictions on society may be needed to control the spread. 

While changes in the new UK variant are unlikely to harm the effectiveness of current vaccines, there is a chance those in the South African variant may do so to some extent, say scientists. 

It is too soon to say for sure, or by how much, until more tests are completed, although it is extremely unlikely the mutations would render vaccines useless. 

Dr Simon Clarke, who is an expert in cell microbiology at the University of Reading, said: “The South African variant has a number additional mutations including changes to some of the virus’ spike protein which are concerning.”

The spike protein is what coronavirus uses to gain entry into human cells. It is also the bit that vaccines are designed around, which is why experts are worried about these particular mutations.

“They cause more extensive alteration of the spike protein than the changes in the Kent variant and may make the virus less susceptible to the immune response triggered by the vaccines,” said Dr Clarke.

Prof Francois Balloon from University College London, said: “The E484K mutation has been shown to reduce antibody recognition. As such, it helps the virus SARS-CoV-2 to bypass immune protection provided by prior infection or vaccination.”

But even in the worst case scenario, vaccines can be redesigned and tweaked to be a better match in a matter or weeks or months, if necessary, say experts.

Is it more dangerous?

There is currently no evidence to suggest that any of the mutated viruses more serious illness. 

And measures like washing your hands, keeping your distance from other people and wearing a face covering will still help stop the spread. 

How far has it spread? 

It is already the dominant virus variant in the Eastern and Western Cape provinces of South Africa. 

Other countries including Austria, Norway and Japan, have also found cases.

The UK has detected two people with the South African variant – one in London and the other in the north west of England. Both were contacts of people who travelled to South Africa. 

What is the UK doing about it? 

The UK has imposed a ban on direct flights from South Africa and restrictions on flights to the country. Anyone who has travelled there recently, and anyone they have been in contact with, are being told to quarantine immediately. 

Public health authorities and scientists are studying the variant and will share their findings soon. 

Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser on Covid-19 to Public Health England, said: “We are carrying out work as a priority to understand the potential risk this variant may cause. It is important to say that there is currently no evidence that this variant causes more severe illness, or that the regulated vaccine would not protect against it.”

By Michelle Roberts
Health editor, BBC News

Covid: South Africa’s Ramaphosa announces new restrictions as cases soar

President Cyril Ramaphosa has announced new tougher coronavirus restrictions, a day after South Africa recorded more than one million Covid-19 cases.

Indoor and outdoor gatherings will be banned, a curfew introduced from 21:00 to 06:00, and alcohol sales prohibited.

Mr Ramaphosa said the country was at an extremely dangerous point in the pandemic and action had to be taken.

Recently authorities confirmed a new, faster-spreading variant of the virus had been detected in South Africa.

Some hospitals and medical centres have reported a huge rise in admissions, putting a heavy strain on resources.

In a televised speech, Mr Ramaphosa said the new 501.V2 variant was now well established in South Africa, and the recent rise in cases was a “cause for great alarm”.

“We have simply let our guard down,” said the president.

He added that the new measures would come into effect at midnight on Monday (22:00 GMT) and last at least until 15 January.

He said gatherings excepts for funerals and a few other limited exceptions would be banned, no-one would be able to leave their homes between 21:00 and 6:00 without a permit, and all shops, bars and other venues would have to close by 20:00.

All alcohol sales would also be banned, and every individual who failed to wear a mask in public places would face possible fines or imprisonment, he added.

People wearing face masks walk in Cape Town, South Africa on December 27, 2020
image captionSouth Africa is seeing a steady increase in cases driven by the new coronavirus variant

On Sunday South Africa became the first country in Africa to pass a million Covid-19 cases, with 1,004,413 infections and 26,735 deaths since the outbreak began in March.

Last week, it recorded a daily average of 11,700 new infections – a rise of 39% on the previous week – and from Wednesday to Friday, the daily number of new cases was above 14,000.

The 501.V2 variant is believed to be driving the surge in infections. It was identified by a network of South African scientists in the Eastern Cape province and then rapidly spread to other parts of the country. 

Earlier this week, the UK banned travel from South Africa because of the new variant. Another new Covid variant has already been detected in the UK, although they have evolved separately.

Both have a mutation – called N501Y – which is in a crucial part of the virus that it uses to infect the body’s cells, but appear unrelated to each other.

After South Africa, the worst hit country on the African continent is Morocco, which has seen 432,079 cases and 7,240 deaths. They are followed by Egypt with 132,541 cases and 7,405 deaths and Tunisia with 131,592 infections and 4,466 deaths.

Shepherd Bushiri: Preacher flees South Africa ahead of fraud trial

A well-known Christian preacher has skipped bail in South Africa and fled the country.

Shepherd Bushiri, who had previously said he wanted to clear his name, has now returned to his home country, Malawi, with his wife Mary. 

Earlier this month they were released on bail after being charged with fraud and money laundering. 

He said there had been attempts on his life and he accused the South African authorities of not offering protection. 

Mr Bushiri described his decision to skip bail as “a tactical withdrawal meant to preserve lives” while speaking to supporters on social media on Saturday. 

Observers fear the issue could cause a diplomatic spat between Malawi and South Africa – as questions are being asked about how Mr Bushiri and his wife managed to leave.

There had been allegations that Mr Bushiri fled on Malawi’s presidential jet with President Lazarus Chakwera – something that has been denied by both Mr Chakwera’s office and the South African authorities.

There are also questions over whether the two countries will co-operate over bringing the couple back to South Africa.

The South African government announced on Sunday that they have started the process to bring the couple back from Malawi “to ensure that the two fugitives face justice”.

The statement made a point to mention that Malawi and South Africa have already promised each other to send back fugitives, as part of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) protocol on extradition.

But when Malawi’s Foreign Affairs minister Eisenhower Mkaka was asked previously, he wouldn’t be drawn on the issue.

He told the BBC’s Nomsa Maseko that it is the duty of the government to protect all Malawians but added that President Chakwera is a staunch advocate of the rule of law and that all diplomatic channels will remain open.

Who is Shepherd Bushiri?

Controversial millionaire preacher Mr Bushiri has been referred to as one of the richest religious leaders in Africa.

He says he has cured people of HIV, made the blind see, changed the fortunes of the impoverished and, on at least one occasion, appeared to walk on air.https://emp.bbc.com/emp/SMPj/2.36.3/iframe.htmlmedia caption’I don’t think there is any sickness I can heal, but Jesus Christ can heal’

He grew up in Mzuzu, a city in northern Malawi and moved to Pretoria in South Africa where he leads his church – the Enlightened Christian Gathering.

He is so popular that he has been known to fill sports stadiums with followers.

But he has also been accused of preying on poor people, desperate to improve their lives, by selling merchandise including “miracle oil”.

The authorities in Botswana shut down his church after it claimed that money could be summoned out of nothing, which contravened financial regulations.

What is he accused of?

Mr Bushiri is accused of money laundering and fraud along with his wife and two others.

Crime investigators say the case involves 102 million South Africa rand ($6.6m; £5m).

How far along is his trial?

He appeared at Pretoria’s Magistrates Court on 21 October to hear the charges and was granted bail on 4 November. 

The trial is expected to start in May.