Next Africa: As a Virus Wave Subsides, a New Variant Emerges


Welcome to Next Africa, a weekly newsletter of where the continent stands now — and where it’s going next.

Just as South Africa pulls through a third  and in many ways the worst wave of coronavirus infections, a new danger has emerged. 

Some of the country’s leading medical scientists said this week another variant had been identified in the country, and it’s already spreading across several continents.

It’s yet to be determined if the mutation is more transmissible, can cause more severe disease or evade vaccines more easily than earlier versions of the virus. But the experts are worried.

Pop-up Vaccination Bus as South Africa Weathers Third Covid Wave
A health worker prepares doses of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine in Cape Town on Aug. 26.
Photographer: Dwayne Senior/Bloomberg

“It has all of the signatures of immune escape,” Tulio de Oliveira, the director of South Africa’s world-leading gene-sequencing institute known as Krisp, said of the variant’s mutations. The changes indicate an ability to evade the antibodies triggered by vaccines.

South Africa is a victim of its own success when it comes to Covid-19. The country is one of just a few globally that have the expertise to quickly identify and track new virus variants

That’s good  and bad.

Late in 2020, its scientists identified the variant now known as beta. Instead of being hailed for its swift recognition of a dangerous mutation, British politicians labeled it the South African variant and the resultant travel bans further set back a tourism industry that provides a livelihood for 1.5 million people. 

The experts maintain that identifying a variant doesn’t necessarily mean that your country is the origin.

This time, should the mutation  known for now as C.1.2.  spread rapidly and cause havoc across the world, South Africa will have to hope that isn’t another case of “shoot the messenger.’’

News & Opinion

Big Hole | Zambia’s debt burden is bigger than was disclosed by the previous government, according to new President Hakainde Hichilema. His administration is trying to uncover the full extent of its obligations as it prepares to seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund and begin talks to revamp the nation’s debt. The president took to Twitter to assure creditors they will be paid.

Hakainde Hichilema
Hakainde Hichilema.
Photographer: Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images

Fly Again | Ethiopian Airlines plans to resume flights using Boeing 737 Max jets by early next year after reaching an out-of-court settlement with the U.S. plane maker over a deadly crash in 2019. Chief Executive Officer Tewolde GebreMariam is now convinced “beyond reasonable doubt” the model is safe after various modifications. The deal reached with Boeing over the accident that killed 157 people is confidential, but the airline considers the matter finalized. 

Power Switch | South African electricity utility Eskom is considering spending $7.2 billion on wind and solar power by 2030 as the country looks to cleaner energy and to shift away from the coal-fired plants that account for almost all its generating capacity. Meanwhile, the company suffered a fourth consecutive annual loss as it continues to service a mountain of debt, repair aging plants and deal with lost revenue because of a drop in demand caused by the pandemic. After growing unabated for 15 years, its gross liabilities dropped last year, thanks to a cash injection from the government. 

Debt Burden

Eskom's debt has declined for the first time in more than a decade

Source: Eskom

Note: Debt shown at end of fiscal year

False Alarm | Ivory Coast’s discovery of its first Ebola case in almost three decades led the West African government to vaccinate more than 4,000 people against the deadly hemorrhagic fever. It also prompted to a hunt for contacts along the patient’s 900-mile journey from Guinea. Then it found out the diagnosis was  wrong. The mishap by a lab in Abidjan had reverberated through the region, reflecting fear of a repeat of an outbreak from 2014 to 2016 that infected 45,000 people.

Oil Riches | Nigeria’s vast reserves of oil and gas have generated great riches but are also blamed for fostering conflict, corruption and poverty. Now the country’s leaders want to almost triple its crude production just as a warming world seeks to accelerate a move from fossil fuels. After years of stagnant oil output, the government enacted a long-delayed law cutting taxes levied on energy companies to more globally competitive levels.

Africa’s Richest Man Builds Nigeria’s $15 Billion Oil Refinery
A storage tank at the under-construction Dangote Industries oil refinery near Lagos.
Photographer: Tom Saater/Bloomberg

Past & Prologue

Data Watch

  • Ethiopia’s central bank doubled the statutory reserve requirement for commercial lenders to 10% and increased the amount of foreign currency they must hold with the institution. That’s after inflation surged to an almost decade high 26.4%.
  • British American Tobacco estimates that illegal cigarettes make up more than half the South African market. Contraband sales will deprive the government of $1.3 billion in unpaid duties this year, it says.

Off Target

South African cigarette revenue is set to undershoot budget estimates

Source: BAT East & Southern Africa

Note: Chart shows data for fiscal years ending March 31; data for 2020 are forecasts

  • Kenya’s war against elephant and giraffe poaching is paying off. Its elephant population has increased by 12% in the past seven years, while the number of giraffes have risen 49% since 2019. 

  • Nigeria’s naira fell to a record low of 530 against the dollar on the parallel market, according Abokifx, an online platform that tracks the data.  

Coming Up 

  • Sept. 7 South Africa second-quarter GDP data & central bank reserves, Mauritius inflation & reserves for August, Seychelles inflation
  • Sept. 8 Kenya GDP data, Tanzania’s August inflation, South Africa business confidence
  • Sept. 9 South Africa second-quarter current account & manufacturing data for July, Nigeria trade balance for the second quarter
  • Sept. 10 Rwanda inflation for August  

Last Word

Travelers keen on a luxury safari trip to Africa or other locations during the pandemic will have to take a large  extra expense into account. Getting the Covid-19 testing and paperwork you need to spend time there is problematic, even with help from a seasoned travel agent. It’s especially true for customers who hope to visit more than one country before returning home, with many nations requiring a negative PCR result 72 hours before entry. Tour operators and resorts are using planes, boats, and automobiles to ferry tests or samples to labs within the required turnaround times. It’s an any-means-possible approach to follow rules that aren’t always as simple as they sound. Sometimes, it’s still not enough for it to make sense for international clients, often in regions where their business is so needed.

relates to Next Africa: As a Virus Wave Subsides, a New Variant Emerges
A suite at Singita Ebony Lodge in South Africa’s Sabi Sands Game Reserve.


— With assistance by Karl Maier