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NEED TO KNOW

SOUTH AFRICA

The Fugitives and the Reformer

The Guptas own coal and uranium mines, steel mills and other enterprises that made them one of the richest families in South Africa.

Today, after allegedly fomenting corruption in the administration of ex-President Jacob Zuma, they live in self-imposed exile in Dubai.

Zuma left office in 2018, but the Guptas’ influence has tainted the African National Congress, the political party that Nelson Mandela led in the fight against apartheid, the New York Times reported.

The country he left behind faces enormous challenges, along with a legacy of politically motivated violence that the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town lamented in his Christmas Eve sermon.

“We welcome the changes in government” since Zuma resigned, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba said, according to SABC News, a South African news outlet. “But how far will good, clean government take us when people are being killed on picket lines, stabbed in our schools, beaten up in service delivery protests and assassinated in disputes over who will hold public office?”

Slow economic growth is dogging South Africa. More than a quarter of the population is unemployed. Starbucks recently announced it was scrapping plans to expand in the country, citing high costs and lack of disposable income, wrote Agence France-Presse.

If Starbucks doesn’t want to open next to the outstanding Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town, the country has a problem.

Zuma’s successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, has been clearing Zuma allies out of government and state-owned businesses and launched a campaign to attract $100 billion in foreign investments in an effort to restore confidence.

“South Africa swims in a sea of darkness right now,” argued Branko Brkic, editor of the Daily Maverick, a South African online news magazine. “For the sake of the country’s survival, it’s crucial that there is at least one person who can see the light. For the first time in many years, that person happens to be the country’s president.”

But Brkic noted that Ramaphosa needs the support of African National Congress officials in rural areas if he wants to win what is sure to be a tough election in May 2019. Those leaders are often less than aboveboard and will expect to gain from aiding the president.

Without Zuma on the ticket, however, noted Bloomberg, Ramaphosa’s rivals have less to complain about, especially if the new president continues to don the mantle of a reformer.

Critics have accused Ramaphosa of graft, too, though for now he appears to have avoided an inquiry because a formal complaint has yet to be filed, reported South Africa’s City Press.

South Africa’s journey from segregation to democracy inspired the world. The hopes of people around the world now ride on Ramaphosa’s shoulders.

WANT TO KNOW

MEXICO

Leftist Taxes

As Mexico’s stock market closed the books on its worst quarter in more than 17 years, largely due to worries about its new leftist leader, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Monday issued an executive order lowering taxes for the country’s northern states in a bid to spur economic growth and curb migration to the United States.

Lopez Obrador decreed lower rates for both value-added and income taxes in more than 40 municipalities bordering the US, Reuters reported. While the cuts will benefit business, they will also hurt tax revenue by as much as $6 billion a year as the president looks to fund new social welfare and infrastructure projects.

Local businesses will get tax credits worth 50 percent of VAT dues. And firms that due 90 percent of their business in the area are eligible for an income tax credit worth one-third of dues, Reuters said.

Lopez Obrador also announced a hike in the minimum wage in the northern region to 177 pesos ($9.00), nearly double the national level, starting Jan. 1.

EUROPEAN UNION

When In Romania

Romania took over the rotating European Union presidency this week, following criticism from European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

Amid the rise of populism around the bloc and the impending British exit, the theme for the Romanians first-ever term at the helm is “Cohesion, a common European value,” Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty reported. But Juncker has already expressed doubts Bucharest is up to the task.

Broadly speaking, the EU presidency chairs and sets the agenda for meetings of the Council of the European Union, the upper house of the EU legislature.

The role “requires a willingness to listen to others and a willingness to put one’s own concerns in the background,” Juncker said in an interview with Germany’s Die Welt newspaper, expressing concerns that Bucharest may not be able to do that.

Notably, the EU has clashed with Romania over proposed reforms to its judiciary that critics say are politically motivated and would undermine the country’s fight against corruption.

Along with presiding over Britain’s slated withdrawal from the bloc on March 29, Romania will be at the helm during EU parliamentary elections scheduled for May.

VIETNAM

Policing the Internet

Vietnam put into effect a new cyber law that puts stringent controls on tech companies that do business within its borders and censors what residents can see online.

Passed in June, the law requires companies like Facebook and Google to set up local offices if they want their sites to work in the country, and to store data about local users and surrender it to the government on request, NPR reported. The government may also order Internet firms to remove content it says is offensive or “toxic.”

Critics say the law will hurt the country’s growth prospects by strangling our era’s most dynamic business sector and allow the Communist government to squash dissent and silence free speech.

Hanoi says the law is needed to fight cyber-espionage and prevent cyber terrorism.

Almost half of Vietnam’s population uses the internet, according to the World Bank, and the country has more than 60 million Facebook users, NPR said.

DISCOVERIES

By the Horns

People say “take the bull by the horns” as a metaphor for how to face a challenging task.

In China, the expression has a literal meaning.

In the city of Jiaxing, martial artists test their skills by going toe-to-toe against live bulls, Reuters reported.

“It symbolizes the bravery of a man,” said kung fu teacher Ren Ruzhi.

Unlike the Spanish blood sport, Chinese bullfighters only use their bare hands to wrestle down beasts weighing up to 882 pounds. The sport requires intensive training, and careers are pretty short.

“Spanish bullfighting is more like a performance or a show,” quipped Hua Yang, a fan who saw a bullfight during a trip to Spain.

Coach Han Haihua teaches a form of bullfighting that combines the skill and speed of martial arts with traditional wrestling techniques, calling it “the explosive power of hard ‘qigong.'”

“What do I mean by explosive power?” he asked. “In a flash! Pow! Concentrate all your power on one point. All of a sudden, in a flash, wrestle it to the ground.”

Animal rights activists worry that the sport is a cruel form of entertainment, but Han assures that the bulls are treated better than Spanish ones.

Click here to see the struggle between man and beast.