Like last year, we asked our clever computer technicians to provide a list of the stories on Moneyweb that readers found most interesting during the year.
In the very unusual 2020, it wasn’t about the rand, the gold price or crooked politicians.
Way ahead was ‘Here’s how South Africans are dodging virus alcohol ban‘. Some 50 readers commented on the story.
“A four-week ban on alcohol sales is forcing thirsty South Africans to get creative, from experimenting with home brews to sneaking over the border in search of a drink,” reads the story, provided by international news network Bloomberg.
“The prohibition, one of the strictest in the world, was introduced March 27 under a nationwide lockdown to control the spread of the coronavirus. While many consumers stocked up — some showing off their bounty by circulating drinking challenges on social media — the extension of the shutdown earlier this month has led some tipplers to try home brewing as their supplies deplete. Others have taken more extreme measures of sneaking across closed borders to neighbouring countries for beer.”
The article noted that the ban had also led to more direct criminal activity, with Police Minister Bheki Cele condemning the burglary and looting of more than a dozen liquor stores.
Also that producers, such as Distell, complained that in addition to the moratorium on sales, shipments overseas had been banned and might permanently damage access to key markets like Europe, the US and China.
Distell CEO Richard Rushton was quoted as saying that the ban was putting SA’s ranking as the world’s ninth-biggest wine exporter in jeopardy. (Distell later received an extension from the South African Revenue Service (Sars) for the payment of more than R1 billion in excise duties as the company did not earn revenue for months.)
“Among the unforeseen consequences of the ban are that the government is getting less tax revenue at a time when it needs funding to revive an economy hobbled by the lockdown,” was another pertinent point made by the authors.
A comment by one of our readers got 203 votes of approval.
Mmmm commented: “The reduced number of trauma cases is not because of alcohol. Fake News. Did they not recently talk about something like 89 000 cases of GBV [gender-based violence] during the lockdown? I think this came directly from the ‘mad hatter’.
“During prohibition in the US violent crime increased by 78%. Someone is trying to justify the stupidity. What makes SA different or ‘special’?
“Like smoking? In France an urgent investigation is being carried out at present as it looks as though nicotine might block the receptors of the virus. Of close to 400 positive cases checked it was found only 5% [of those infected] were smokers compared with 35% average smokers nationally.
“Strange how it is again different to what our ‘Einsteins’ are saying. They say its the other way around.”
Moneyweb writer Melitta Ngalonkulu’s story on March 14, that the UIF would stop making special Ters payments at the end of June, was the second most-read story of 2020.
She quoted Employment and Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi, who said the commitment to pay the Covid-19 Temporary Employer-Employee Relief Scheme (Ters) benefits until June was per the initial March 26 directive.
This is because the payments were intended as a stop-gap measure for a period of three months, or until such time that lockdown restrictions were eased and the economy slowly reopened.
Nxesi said using the measure that one beneficiary is responsible for eight others, the amount of money that had then been distributed had covered at least 14 million people in May alone.
Covid fears ignite
The third most popular story, published on March 14, indicated to what extent people were concerned about the effects of the coronavirus pandemic: Italy’s nightmare offers a chilling preview of what’s coming.
The opening paragraph was indeed chilling, if somewhat dramatic: “In Rome, the first signs of change came from overhead. Shortly before cocktail hour on Monday, the thrum-thrum-thrum of a helicopter could be heard above the winding lanes of the 2 000-year-old historic centre. The police were keeping an eye on the Trastevere neighbourhood, where smoke billowed from the windows of a jail as inmates rioted, protesting cramped conditions that put them at risk of coronavirus infection.”
The article noted the financial effect to come, saying that at about the same time, the stock market was opening in New York, ushering in a week that would see the worst rout since 1987.
A few hours later, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte gathered journalists for a televised, prime-time press conference. Rules that only 48 hours earlier had been imposed on Milan, Venice and other cities in the north — travel being restricted, schools shut, and even the opera being called off — would be extended nationwide.
The world’s eighth-biggest economy, with more than 60 million inhabitants, entered virtual quarantine.
“Basically, it’s a natural-disaster case,” Philipp Hildebrand, vice chairman at money manager BlackRock, told Bloomberg TV.
“If they don’t have customers for a couple of weeks, it becomes very hard to service their debt, it becomes hard to pay the rent.”
The story was accurate; the same scenario played out a few months later in SA.
Moneyweb’s top 20 stories of 2020:
That a second alcohol story – ‘Liquor taps could reopen in seven weeks‘ – was among the top 20 is probably not a compliment to us all.
The hope of not ever drinking beer from a coffee mug when going for a snack in the local uplifted the spirits of a significant number of readers when we published the story towards the end of July.
The article, also by Ngalonkulu, criticised government for not warning the public about the strain that alcohol-related trauma admissions were putting on the national health system before the sale of alcohol was banned for a second time.
This was according to the SA Medical Research Council, which released the report that it subsequently acknowledged could be one of the reasons government put the brakes on the sale of liquor during advanced Level 3 lockdown a week earlier. It predicted that the ban would last for at least eight weeks.
Sixty-seven readers commented on this story, with Romulus’s thoughts being the most telling:
“The rationale behind the NCCC [National Coronavirus Command Council] decision …’ – tyranny I think it has been referred to over the ages and last I checked, 100 years ago the Americans called it Prohibition!
“Dear NCCC, I have a suggestion – if you are allegedly so concerned about the death and trauma caused by alcohol – why not consider also instituting an immediate ban on taxi’s. They are after all, statistically the single largest cause of road deaths/ carnage and the trauma centres being over run as a result, on a daily basis – not so?”
Another reader added that “admittedly old (1998) data I could find using Google painted a grim picture of taxi accidents: 60 000 accidents annually, 25 000 injuries and 2 000 deaths.
“So yes, any logic would tell you that the taxi industry needs to be banned completely, if this was really about the virus.”
Melitta had more to report on alcohol sales, resulting in another top 20 story: ‘Spar’s Tops and Build IT buckle under pandemic pressure‘ highlighted the impact of the lockdown on SA businesses.
“During its interim results presentation on Thursday, the giant retailer said its heavily-impacted businesses in southern Africa are the Build It and Tops at Spar retail chains, which were required to close in accordance with the lockdown measures,” she wrote.
Spar said that for the prior financial year, these combined businesses represented 21% of southern Africa turnover.
Foreign-registered vehicle furore
In August, Ciaran Ryan wrote an account of Joaquim Alves, who was arrested and locked up for a weekend in May 2019 when his Lesotho-registered vehicle, which was being driven by a friend, was seized by SA customs officials in the eastern Free State town of Ficksburg. He speculated that Sars might face the wrath of lots of people who have been fined or were forced to pay levies for driving vehicles registered in neighbouring countries on SA roads.
In this case, Alves has businesses on both sides of the Lesotho border and the vehicle was used to travel to and from the landlocked country several times a week. He argued in vain with Sars customs officials that they had misread the law in seizing his vehicle.
He then “unlawfully” retrieved his vehicle from the Ficksburg municipal compound and was arrested later on charges of theft.
The reason this is such a contentious issue is that South Africans need special permits to purchase cheap imported vehicles, mostly from Japan, yet the same rules do not apply to residents of other Southern African Customs Union countries.
This is why so many Lesotho and Botswana-registered vehicles are visible on SA roads, wrote Ryan.
Owners of such vehicles have apparently been complaining for years of seemingly arbitrary seizure of their vehicles by SA police and customs officials while driving in SA.
Bank debt ‘relief’
Ryan’s story on people who did not qualify to get debt relief from banks as part of Covid-19 assistance measures got into the top 20 too. “The banks have been commended for their debt relief measures in response to the Covid-19 crisis, but let’s not get too excited about this. The repayment holidays are fraught with legal risks which will only become apparent later in the year,” he concluded.
Which seems to have been an accurate prediction – read his December 15 story: Watch out for a repo frenzy
“Some of the banks have adopted a one-size-fits-all approach that makes no concessions for customers’ individual circumstances as a result of the lockdown. They have ignored solutions that are more viable and beneficial for customers, and this will open up all sorts of interesting legal problems in the months and years to come should those customers default,” wrote Ryan.
“Those who are ‘not in good standing’ – such as those already in arrears on mortgage payments – do not qualify for a repayment holiday, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” says the article, quoting legal advisor Leonard Benjamin. Benjamin said banks are still required to negotiate with all customers in good faith, based on each customer’s individual circumstance.
“They cannot refuse to negotiate, and simply institute legal proceedings that may eventually result in the sale of their customer’s home to recover the debt,” said Benjamin. “As the banks cannot possibly know each person’s personal circumstances, it is up to customers to make debt relief proposals that reflect their own particular circumstances.
“They must then follow through with their proposal, whether the bank accepts it or not, by paying the bank in accordance with their proposal. Banks that ignore properly motivated and viable solutions do so at their own risk, particularly when backed up by actual payments.”
Another story on the list that deserves comment was that by Hilton Tarrant – ‘Finally a creditable plan to fix Eskom’.
The January 13 article quoted Eskom chief operating officer Jan Oberholzer as saying that a new approach to maintaining the utility’s coal fleet would be considered by the board before the end of that month.
The thinking was that Eskom would remove a number of units for service for an extended period of time, allowing it the space to do proper maintenance. “I believe Eskom needs to be bold and say truthfully to the public of SA that we have 25 000MW 24/7 365 days a year and then take whatever buffer we have and maintain our units.
“If it’s time for a 12-year general overhaul, or a nine-year general overhaul, or a mid-life refurbishment, or routine maintenance, we take the unit off and we maintain it properly. If it’s a 60-day, a 75-day or a 90-day outage, that’s what we do and we replace whatever we need to,” said Oberholzer.
The comments by readers showed that the public seems to be quite informed about the electricity situation in the country and Eskom’s workings.
WesleyGrey reacted to a statement in the article (This time, however, the plan is not the clichéd definition of insanity), saying: “So what is the term for expecting the same people who broke Eskom to somehow fix it? They repeat the same actions and expect a different result. Logic says if they were competent it wouldn’t be broken in the first place.”
On a penultimate note, our thanks to all Moneyweb readers, and especially those who comment on stories, debate the writers’ conclusions and even shed new light on issues that affect us all.
And finally – cheers to all of you from all of us, with best wishes for the festive season and for 2021.