Then and Now: South Africa, Algeria, Ukraine

We at GZERO are old enough to remember a time when there was some story about the US president trying to buy Greenland… last week. The news cycle moves fast. In fact, since you started reading this piece, it's already moved on.

As an antidote to the news cycle madness, we are creating a little time machine. Every so often we'll fire it up to check on, and update, stories that we've covered in the past.

For our inaugural voyage, we look back at South Africa's elections, Algeria's protests, and a scary near miss between Ukraine and Russia.


Three months ago – A South African reformer struggles: Cyril Ramaphosa's triumph in South Africa's May elections was seen as a reformist rebuke to his African National Congress (ANC) party's corrupt old guard. Now, three months into the job, he is dealing with two main issues: a corruption row and land reform. When Ramaphosa took over as party chief from Jacob Zuma — who was forced out amid widespread corruption allegations — he pledged to bring "ethics" into politics. But for much of his short tenure, Ramaphosa has been fighting a campaign finance scandal. Meanwhile, one of Ramaphosa's first moves as president was to spearhead a controversial land reform that would expedite land transfers to the black majority. This, too, has split public opinion over how, exactly, it will help the poor or speed the country's economic progress.

Six Months ago – Algeria's unfulfilled protests: In February, hundreds of thousands of Algerian protesters hit the streets to call for the ouster of the country's long-serving and functionally-deceased strongman Abdelaziz Bouteflika. He resigned in April but since then the government has been run by the same military cronies who kept Bouteflika in power. That doesn't sit well with protesters, who continue to flood the streets every weekend to demand more than just a cosmetic change to a repressive and corrupt system. They want fresh elections and a civilian government, but no new ballot is on the calendar yet. It's a stalemate in which the military is trying to outlast the streets. A reminder that while popular protests can succeed in ousting specific leaders (think Egypt's Mubarak or Sudan's Bashir) the systems behind those leaders are often much harder to displace.

Nine Months ago – Ukraine and Russia on the brink: For a few days last November, it seemed Moscow and Kyiv's simmering conflict over Eastern Ukraine might escalate into outright war on the high seas, when the Russian navy fired on Ukrainian ships in a contested waterway. Since then things have cooled – and Ukraine has elected a comedian as president. In recent days there has been talk of a major prisoner swap between Ukrainian forces and the Russian-backed rebels who control large swathes of eastern Ukraine. That would be a step forward in resolving the conflict, which is now in its fifth year. But the crux of it remains unresolved: Moscow wants Kyiv to grant the separatist provinces more autonomy than Ukraine's parliament can stomach.

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While the world will need to reach net zero, those of us who can afford to move faster and go further should do so. That's why last week we announced an ambitious goal and a new plan to reduce and ultimately remove Microsoft's carbon footprint. By 2030 Microsoft will be carbon negative, and by 2050 Microsoft will remove from the environment all the carbon the company has emitted either directly or by electrical consumption since it was founded in 1975. We are also launching an initiative to use Microsoft technology to help our suppliers and customers around the world reduce their own carbon footprints and a new $1 billion climate innovation fund to accelerate the global development of carbon reduction, capture, and removal technologies.

Read more on the Official Microsoft Blog.

A potentially deadly new coronavirus that can be transmitted from one person to another is now spreading across China. Chinese state media say it has infected about 300 people and killed six, but the number of undetected or unreported cases is certain to be much higher. Complicating containment efforts, millions of people are on the move across the country this week to celebrate the Chinese New Year with family and friends.

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Norway's government breaks up over ISIS returnee – Norway's right-wing Progress Party said it will resign from the country's four-party coalition government over the prime minister's decision to bring home a Norwegian woman affiliated with the Islamic State in Syria. The woman, who left Norway for the conflict zone in 2013, was arrested shortly after arriving in Oslo with her two children, on suspicion of being a member of ISIS. Prior to her return, she had been held in the Al-Hol refugee camp in northeastern Syria, along with thousands of other family members of ISIS fighters. The defection of Norway's anti-immigrant Progress Party undercuts Prime Minister Erna Solberg's parliamentary majority, likely making it hard for her to pass laws in parliament. This case reflects an increasingly common problem for European countries: the Islamic State's self-proclaimed caliphate has largely collapsed but what should countries do about the return of former fighters and their families to societies that don't want them?

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20,000: Sri Lanka's president has acknowledged for the first time that some 20,000 people who disappeared during the country's brutal civil war are dead, dashing the hopes of families who had held out hope that their relatives were alive and in military custody. The conflict, which ended in 2009, split the country according to ethnicities, killing around 100,000 people, mostly Tamil rebels.

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Since Martin Luther King Jr delivered his iconic "I have a dream" speech in August 1963, the number of Black Americans elected to the United States Congress has dramatically increased. Still, it wasn't until last year, more than half a century later, that the share of Black members serving in the House of Representatives reflected the percentage of Black Americans in the broader population —12 percent. To date, only six states have sent a Black representative to serve in the US Senate, and many states have never elected a Black representative to either house of Congress. Here's a look at Black representation in every US Congress since 1963.