Author: My Office News

4m African web addresses have been stolen

Source: Business Insider SA

More than four million IP addresses have been misappropriated in what has been called Africa’s greatest internet heist. The extent of the theft, which first drew red flags back in 2016, has now been fully uncovered, revealing a trail of corruption, coverups, and a burgeoning black-market trade.

The results of an internal audit undertaken by the African Network Information Centre (AFRINIC) have finally been made public after almost two years of waiting. AFRINIC, which is responsible for the allocation and management of IP addresses on the continent, began its investigation after being contacted by the United States’ Federal Investigation Bureau (FBI) in 2019.

Four years before the FBI drew attention to the numerous anomalies – and the Supreme Court of Mauritius, where it is headqaurtered, served AFRINIC with an order to investigate – the information centre was tipped off by internet investigator Ron Guilmette.

Guilmette’s collaboration with local tech publication, MyBroadband, resulted in a report which implicated AFRINIC co-founder and engineer Ernest Byaruhanga as the mastermind behind the heist.

In total, 4.1 million IP addresses were stolen, 2.3 million from AFRINIC’s “free pool” and a further 1.7 million “legacy” IP addresses. They were worth around R1.3 billion, according to MyBroadband.

An IP, or Internet Protocol, address allows devices to communicate with each other, by assigning a unique number to each device.

The current generation IPv4 addresses are, however, in seriously short supply. This shortage has, in turn, made IP addresses valuable.

AFRINIC tracks and manages IP addresses through the WHOIS system, which, as the title describes, records who or what is using a specific address. As part of its latest report on the theft, AFRINIC admits that its WHOIS database was severely compromised by internal staff who “acted in collusion with other third parties”.

IPv4 addresses, which were already reserved and in use by major organisations, were effectively hijacked and sold. These reappropriated IP addresses were used to forward spam, breach data records, and compromise websites.

Dozens of South African-based companies and organisations were impacted.

The Free State Department of Education and Anglo American both lost IP addresses to the value of almost R20 million, while the now-defunct Infoplan, which previously managed the Department of Defence’s information systems, was the worst hit, losing addresses worth approximately R80 million.

Three whole IP blocks, equating to almost 200,000 individual addresses, belonging to Woolworths were misappropriated. MyBroadband estimates the value of these stolen addresses to exceed R58 million.

Similarly, three IP blocks belonging to Nedbank – historically associated with Cape of Good Hope Bank Limited, Syfrets, and NBS Bank – were also part of the heist.

Other major South African organisations which had their IP addresses misappropriated include Nampak, Sasol, the City of Cape Town’s Directorate of Information Services, Transnet, and Independent Media’s Argus Holdings.

Approximately 1.5 million IP addresses have been reversed or reclaimed as part of AFRINIC’s audit. Most other addresses are still pending, as the result of a review process determining rightful custodianship.

 

By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba for ITWeb

Some cyber security experts say the South African Revenue Service’s (SARS’s) decision to introduce a Web browser that supports defunct Adobe Flash Player has “severe” cyber security implications.

Citizens have also taken to social media to express their dismay at the revenue service’s decision to roll out a browser that enables Flash Player.

This week, SARS announced the release of an alternate SARS browser solution, as it tries to deal with the aftermath of the delay in migrating all eFiling forms from Adobe Flash to its chosen HTML5 platform.

In its statement, the tax collecting agency says taxpayers will be able to complete and submit the Flash-based forms not migrated to HTML5, in the interim, while it completes the migration.

“The SARS browser enables access to all eFiling forms, including those that require Adobe Flash, thus maintaining compliance with your filing obligations.”

SARS adds that existing Web browsers such as Chrome and Edge will continue to work for all forms already migrated.

Desperate measures
Even though software company Adobe announced in July 2017 that it will stop supporting Flash Player post 31 December 2020, SARS has been behind in completing the migration process.

As a result of the disruption caused by the migration holdup, last week the taxman said it would implement some remedial actions to assist taxpayers still experiencing issues.

At the time, the taxman didn’t point to a SARS browser among its list of solutions to deal with the disruption caused by the discontinuation of Adobe Flash, but has now indicated its availability.

Cyber security and small business expert Hennie Ferreira says SARS is obviously desperate for a solution; however, the current solution is not safe.

“Flash Player is no longer a secure technology and any solution that involves using Flash Player is not secure. I think SARS is making the matter worse by putting taxpayers at risk by using unsafe technologies.”

Ferreira highlights the only solution around the Flash Player issues is to not use it at all. “SARS should process all requests via e-mail and their call centres manually until they have fixed the eFilling system.”

SARS notes the browser is currently compatible with Windows devices only, a move that Ferreira says still excludes the thousands of Mac and Linux users.

Jason Jordaan, principal forensic analyst at digital forensics firm DFIR Labs, comments that it was not a good decision on the part of SARS to release a “new” browser, adding that it just contributes to confusion on the part of the end-user.

“The bottom line is that SARS had well over three years to migrate from Flash and they simply did not get it done in time. They had certainly been working on it as a lot of functionality was no longer dependent on Flash.

“SARS clearly had the capability to transition away from Flash, and had demonstrated that they could do so successfully. My concern is that deploying a new browser instead of simply fixing the problem (that they were aware of), on time, is an ineffective use of resources, at a time when all of us in the country are expected to tighten our belts.”

Unnecessary risk
SARS says its browser cannot be used for general Internet surfing, as it deploys as a separate application and can only be used to access the SARS eFiling Web site and SARS corporate Web site.

Ferreira emphasises that the security implications are severe. “It places every taxpayer, who still needs Flash Player to use the browser, at risk of cyber attacks. Adobe recommended to remove Flash Player completely or to uninstall it as it is insecure and will open computers up to cyber attacks.

“The second problem is that it also places the entire eFilling system at risk and makes the entire system vulnerable by using outdated and insecure technologies.

“The risks are not only on the forms that use Flash Player, but also creates the possibility for hackers to use Flash Player’s vulnerabilities to penetrate SARS’s systems and pivot further attacks from there.”

Jordaan notes that using a product that is no longer supported carries risks. “The browser that SARS has released is a Chromium-based browser, and while the latest Chromium build has Flash support removed, it is possible to still enable Flash to run.”

Compliance considerations
Ferreira stresses that the situation is a national embarrassment for SARS as it was well aware of the discontinuation of Flash Player.

“This is not acceptable and it clearly demonstrates the incompetence from SARS’s IT department to act in this way and ignore cyber security norms and standards and put their own systems and taxpayers’ systems at risk.

“Businesses in South Africa, under the POPI Act, are obliged to implement cyber security protocols by law or face serious consequences. By being forced to use insecure technologies by SARS, this means they are not POPI-compliant as there is a well-known vulnerability that is not being addressed and can place all personal information that they process at risk.

“There is a very good reason why all major browsers stopped supporting Flash Player and removed it from their software. Flash Player is a security risk. SARS is doing the opposite by providing a browser that continues to use Flash Player, despite Adobe clearly instructing everyone not to do so. Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Microsoft Edge, Apple Safari, Opera Browser, and pretty much any other safe browser, discontinued its support for Flash Player.”

 

Source: DW

Australia wants Google to pay for displaying local media content. In return, the tech giant has threatened to disable its search engine in the country. Could this confrontation set a precedent?

What’s happening in Australia?
Australia has proposed a bill that would oblige Google and Facebook to pay license fees to Australian media companies for sharing their journalistic content. Noncompliance would incur millions in fines. In response, Google has threatened to block Australian users from accessing its search engine should the bill become law.

Mel Silva, managing director of Google Australia and New Zealand, told an Australian senate committee her company had no other choice but to block access to Google’s search engine in Australia should the bill be adopted in its current form. Even though, she said, this was the last thing Google wanted.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in turn declared that his country would not be intimated, saying, “We don’t respond to threats.” He added that “Australia makes our rules for things you can do in Australia. That’s done in our Parliament.”

Why has the confrontation escalated?
Google has said it is willing to negotiate with publishers over paying license fees for content. The tech giant, however, argues Australia’s proposed law goes too far. It would oblige Google to pay not only when providing extensive previews of media content, but also when sharing links to the content. This, said Silva, would undermine the modus operandi of search engines.

The bill would also establish an arbitration model under which an Australian judge would determine how much Google should pay if the company fails to reach an agreement with a publisher. This mechanism is dividing opinions, with Google arguing it produces an incalculable financial risk for the company.

What’s at stake?
“Search engines earn considerable money from media content, whereas publishers earn little,” said Christian Solmecke, a Cologne-based lawyer specialised in media and internet law. Google, however, argues that publishers benefit from the platform, as users are directed to media content when it is indexed on the Google Newsfeed and elsewhere.

But publishers want a bigger share of the pie by receiving licensing fees. “Billions are thus at stake for Google,” said Solmecke. He doubts the tech giant will follow through on its threat and disable the search engine in Australia. “After all, that search engine is an elementary part of the digital world.”

But the row in Australia highlights a global dilemma. Recently, Google temporarily blocked certain Australian media content to some users in the country. The company announced the move had merely been a test run, though it was widely interpreted as a show of force: Oppose Google and you risk disappearing from its search results, facing dire economic consequences. For this reason, Solmecke said, “denying Google the right to use your content will remain a purely theoretical option.”

Is the EU planning a similar law?
In the spring of 2019, the EU adopted an ancillary copyright directive. All members states must now translate the directive into national legislation and adopt national ancillary copyright laws. Akin to the proposed Australian media bill, the EU directive aims to ensure publishers gain a share of revenue earned by internet platforms like Google when sharing journalistic content. Tech companies like Google generate revenue by, for instance, placing ads next to search results.

However, the directive does not place as many demands on companies such as Google and Facebook. “European and German ancillary copyright law is and will remain more narrow than the Australian bill,” said Stephan Dirks, a lawyer specialized in copyright and media law in Hamburg. Unlike the Australian bill, the EU directive allows tech platforms to display short media snippets for free. And it does not establish an automated arbitration model, either.

European confrontation looming?
Even though EU ancillary copyright law is more limited than the planned Australian law, experts do not rule out EU member states clashing with Google. “This gives us an idea how Google will react to the implementation of EU ancillary copyright law,” said Dirks. He recalls how Germany already introduced an ancillary copyright law in 2013, which prompted Google to threaten it would remove all media content from its search results if the law went into force. “That will certainly also be in the offing when the copyright reform has been implemented,” he predicted.

Solmecke, too, said the EU should keep a close eye on the standoff between Australia and Google. “The reaction of big tech companies can be seen as pointers toward their future conduct in Europe,” he said.

France has already translated the 2019 EU ancillary copyright directive into national law. Google subsequently struck a deal with French publishers over license fees.

Most EU member states are yet to pass their own ancillary copyright laws. It thus cannot be ruled out that Google’s threats will have an impact on national lawmaking processes, said Dirks.

By Chris de Bruyn, operations director at Gabsten Technologies

With remote working having become the norm for most companies in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the need to constantly back up critical data is not only more crucial than ever, but also requires that organisations understand the difference between remote and onsite backups.

Traditionally, backups were done on-premise and companies simply relied on the “3-2-1” backup strategy, which requires organisations to have three copies of their data (production data and two backup copies) on two different media, with one copy offsite for Disaster Recovery (DR).

However, now that workforces are spread over a massive geographical area, organisations have had to adjust their backup strategies accordingly. Over the past few months, companies have been purchasing endpoint licences, so that endpoint devices are protected.

At the same time, many organisations are also moving their critical data and systems to the public cloud, but this has to be done in a financially sensible manner, as public cloud computing through international vendors, isn’t always as affordable in South Africa as it is in other parts of the world.

Remote working has forced organisations to be a lot more agile and flexible and to consider things that weren’t always part of their thought process at the start of 2020. Previously, most companies didn’t even think about protecting laptops, desktops or endpoints. Instead, everything was kept on-premise, where shared drives were easily accessible and protected.

New dimension of risk

Now, organisations need to protect all these distributed endpoints, as remote working is adding new dimensions to the risks that they face. This means that companies have to put in place complete backup strategies to ensure that everything is protected, irrespective of where the devices and data are located.

When adopting a strategy, the key backup parameters that companies need to consider are organisational-based and aligned to what the organisation needs at the time. This is where agility is important, as a company’s data management solution must be able to adapt to what it needs at any given point.

If an organisation’s data management strategy does not provide for this, then it must be relooked at against the company’s needs and against what is affordable. The truth is that some enterprises simply cannot afford to throw money at the problem. In that case, organisations should rather team up with a data management partner that has the expertise to guide them through these problems and can also assist with a Business Continuity (BC) plan, which must include a DR strategy.

It is also very important to differentiate between remote and onsite backups. Onsite backup is a legacy strategy where hardware infrastructure that is run on-premise is replicated to a remote DR site or a secondary location. Depending on how thoroughly the strategy is applied, an organisation will either replicate their critical data or all of their data.

Not always feasible

Remote backups focus a lot more on protecting the endpoint or end user. This may not be the most feasible strategy as an organisation could be burdened with having to protect thousands of laptops while bandwidth remains costly. A better solution would be to train staff to ensure that nothing is saved to the endpoint, but rather to shared drives or approved cloud services.

While many organisations are likely to continue working from home, it is unlikely that there will be huge potential to save on office space. South Africa is intermittently plagued by load shedding and companies have, over the past five or six years, spent massive amounts on making sure that their business can function when the lights go out.

So, it is unlikely that these enterprises will throw that investment away and let people work entirely from home. Obviously, load shedding also affects workers in remote locations, so these companies would have to incur massive expenditure to provide their employees with uninterrupted power supplies to keep them working during power outages.

Of course, having a distributed or rotational workforce does increase the risk of data loss, but these risks can be mitigated with the help of a data management partner. Organisations need to have a sound data management strategy, which should be used intelligently to ensure that all critical data is always protected.

By Mike Schüssler and Phumlani Majozi for IOL

Nearly 1.4-million formal and informal jobs are at risk in the South African economy with the present Level 3 restrictions impacting directly across at least seven sectors.

The sectors are travel, tourism, entertainment, leisure, manufacturing, agriculture, and services that are not elsewhere classified.

The total number of people employed across these sectors equates to one in 12 jobs being directly at risk of destruction. If one includes family and dependants as a reflection of the normal size of households, the level 3 restrictions could impact millions more as they rely on the breadwinner’s wages.

As many also help dependants outside the immediate family, the overall number of people impacted could be as much as 10 percent of the South African population.

Remember, too, that South Africa is often credited with the highest unemployment rate in the world. The impact will be felt even if only half of the jobs at risk are destroyed.

Some provinces, such as the Western and Northern Cape, have even higher numbers: One in six jobs in the Western Cape and one in five in the Northern Cape are at risk.

While the Eastern Cape has only one in 13 jobs at risk, the impact could be greater as the provincial extended unemployment rate could increase to close to 60 percent. Measured differently, the risk for the Eastern Cape is that only one in four adults will have a job if the jobs at risk are destroyed.

While metropolitan unemployment rates are generally lower than rural unemployment rates, all eight metros in the country could end up with extended unemployment rates above 40 percent.

One, Nelson Mandela Bay, would have an unemployment rate of more than 50 percent. Two others, Mangaung and Ekurhuleni, could have unemployment rates of close to 50 percent.

Limpopo and the Eastern Cape already have the highest unemployment rates in the country, so any, even a small, increase would have a devastating impact.

Overall, South African unemployment could rise from 43.1 percent to 51.6 percent within a year, driven by the potential level 3 job losses. And increasing job seekers.

In addition to these unacceptable job losses, the level 3 restrictions are having detrimental repercussions for the turnover of industry as well.

The formal private sector turnover of the industries impacted by the restrictions was R69 billion a month in 2019. The formal private sector is at risk of losing 8.1 percent of its turnover every month that the restrictions remain, using annual financial statistics.

The estimated impact across these sectors is a reduction of at least 60 percent in turnover. This means that R41.4bn is lost every month that the restrictions remain.

The formal salaries paid to employees in these sectors is R9.6bn per month. Personal income tax is estimated at R1.5bn per month. Adding agriculture and informal employee income would be close to R10.5 million.

The knock-on impact can be seen by the fact that these industries buy R38.7bn worth of goods from other sectors every month, and spend R1.5m on advertising as well as fixed costs such as rent, leases, and interest of R4.6bn per month.

Moreover, these sectors pay R7.6bn in taxes every month (excluding employees’ PAYE mentioned above).

These taxes are made up of VAT, excise duties and company taxes.

The total taxes combined are well over R9bn for the formal sector alone per month. Adding things like passenger taxes and tourism spend along with the informal sector VAT spend, the impact of the level 3 restrictions on the fiscus is certainly well over R10bn a month.

The fact that the government extracts more than R10bn a month from these industries during normal times, but cannot find any funds to help them when they are in trouble, is economically short-sighted.

Keeping these businesses alive and operating as far as possible, while they take precautions against the Covid-19 pandemic, will help pay for the now bigger deficit even in the short-term.

Over a maximum period of six years, a relief package that helps the whole industry for three months at a rate of just more than R10bn will have been more than paid back.

Government relief on that scale will also mean that banks will be more likely to help restructure repayments, and suppliers would also be able to help with more finance, too.

Moreover, paying employees extra via the Temporary Employee/Employer Relief Scheme would also help greatly. No one can go 10 months with reduced earnings as a result of harsh restrictions without any government relief.

The government has a moral duty to not cause business failure, as well as to avoid mass hunger. It must immediately open the economy up again and allow businesses to take the necessary hygienic precautions without undue interference.

 

New tax rules you should know about

By Jean du Toit for IOL

The President has given effect to the 2020 tax proposals by signing three tax Acts into law. On 15 January 2021, the President gave his assent to the Rates and Monetary Amounts and Amendment of Revenue Laws Act No. 22 of 2020 (“Rates Act”), the Taxation Laws Amendment Act No. 23 of 2020 (“TLAA”) and the Tax Administration Laws Amendment Act No. 24 of 2020 (“TALAA”). These Acts were promulgated on 20 January 2021.

The Rates Act gives effect to changes in tax rates and certain monetary thresholds, whereas the TLAA and the TALAA contain more profound technical and administrative changes. Highlighted below are 10 key changes taxpayers need to know.

1.Withdrawal of retirement funds upon emigration

From 1 March 2021, taxpayers will no longer be able to access their retirement benefits upon completion of the emigration process through the South African Reserve Bank, commonly referred to as “financial emigration”. After this date, taxpayers will only be able to access their retirement benefits if they can prove they have been non-resident for tax purposes for an uninterrupted period of three years. Importantly, taxpayers can still access their retirement benefits under the old dispensation if they file their financial emigration application on or before 28 February 2021. If you miss this deadline, your retirement benefits will be locked in for a period of at least three years

2.Anti-avoidance rules bolstered for trusts

The anti-avoidance rules aimed at curbing tax-free transfers of wealth to trusts have been strengthened to prevent persisting loopholes. The amendment is directed at structures where individuals subscribe for preference shares with no or a low rate of return in a company owned by a trust connected to the individual. Ongoing changes to these rules again bring into question the thinking that trust structures are tax efficient.

3.Reimbursing employees for business travel expenses

Employees are not subject to tax on an amount paid by their employer as an advance or reimbursement in respect of meals and incidental costs where the employee is obliged to spend a night away from home for business purposes, provided it does not exceed the amount published in the Government Gazette. The TLAA includes an amendment which extends the treatment to expenses incurred on meals and other incidental costs while the employee is away on a day trip. It is important to note that this will only apply if the employer’s policies expressly make provision for and allows such reimbursement.

4.Relief for expats confirmed

Due to the travel restrictions under the Covid-19 pandemic, the days requirement for the foreign employment exemption has been reduced from 183 days in aggregate to 117 days. The relaxation only applies to the aggregate number of days and the requirement that more than 60 of the days spent outside South Africa must have been consecutive remains applicable. This amendment is not a permanent fixture and will only apply to any 12-month period for the years of assessment ending from 29 February 2020 to 28 February 2021.

5.Employer provided bursaries

The Income Tax Act makes provision for the exemption of bona fide bursaries or scholarships granted by employers to employees or their relatives. Historically, employees used this exemption as a mechanism to structure their remuneration package to reduce their tax liability. The exemption will no longer apply where the employee’s remuneration package is subject to an element of salary sacrifice; that is where any portion of their remuneration is reduced or forfeited as a result of the grant of such a bursary or scholarship.

6.Tax treatment of doubtful debts

The doubtful debt allowance provision has been amended to bring parity between taxpayers that apply IFRS 9 and those who do not. Where the taxpayer does not apply IFRS 9, the amount of the allowance is calculated after taking into account any security that is available in respect of that debt.

7.Roll-over amounts claimable under the ETI

The Employment Tax Incentive Act has been amended to encourage tax compliance. The amendment determines that excess ETI claims of employers that are non-compliant from a tax perspective will no longer be rolled over to the end of the PAYE reconciliation period.

8.Estimated assessments

The terms under which Sars may issue an assessment based on an estimate has been expanded. Sars may now issue an estimated assessment where the taxpayer fails to respond to a request from Sars for relevant material. The amendment also bars the taxpayer from lodging an objection against the estimated assessment until the taxpayer responds to the request for material.

9. Sars can withhold your refund if you are under criminal investigation

In terms of the Tax Administration Act, Sars is entitled to withhold refunds owed to taxpayers in certain circumstances. The TALAA expands these provisions to determine that if you are subject to a criminal investigation in terms of the Tax Administration Act, Sars is entitled to withhold any refund it owes you, pending the outcome of the investigation.

10.Criminal sanctions for minor tax offences

Previously, a taxpayer would only be guilty of a criminal offence for non-compliance under the Tax Administration Act if they “wilfully” failed to comply with their tax obligations. With the new amendments, non-compliance will constitute a criminal offence where it is as a result of the taxpayer’s negligence. In other words, intent is no longer required; where you are non-compliant as a result of ignorance of your obligations, you may be found guilty of a criminal offence. These offences are subject to a fine or imprisonment of up to two years.

Final comments

Taxpayers need to speak to their advisors to understand these changes and special heed must be paid to the administrative changes that are now law. The most important change that applies to all taxpayers is the one that criminalises negligent non-compliance. This and other administrative changes mean that taxpayers will be held to a higher standard, which serves as a cue for everyone to take ownership of their tax affairs.

 

SA shares hit record high despite domestic gloom

By Ntando Thukwana for Business Insider SA

On Monday, the JSE’s all share index rocketed to levels never seen before, even as South Africa’s economy continues to be roiled by the coronavirus pandemic.

Monday’s rally was in large part thanks to a 7% gain in Naspers, which is one of the biggest shares on the bourse. Via its subsidiary Prosus, Naspers owns a 31% stake in the Chinese tech behemoth Tencent.

Investors in Asia have been piling into Tencent ahead of the Hong Kong listing of short-video service Kuaishou Technology, a TikTok competitor. The company is backed by Tencent, and could raise more than $5 billion, which could make it the world’s biggest tech listing since Uber, reports Bloomberg. The SA market also received a boost from Monday’s 11% rally in Woolworths, which reported stronger-than-expected sales. On Tuesday, the local market started to retreat, but Woolworths’ share price continued its rise.

The JSE is now 11% higher than at the start of 2020, before the pandemic, hard lockdowns and job losses wreaked havoc on the local economy.

Currently, the country is struggling to contain a massive second Covid wave, while failing to secure the necessary vaccines, and its retreat back into Level 3 is causing immense economic strain.

So why the rally on the local market?

Nick Kunze, a senior portfolio manager at Sanlam Private Wealth, says the JSE is benefiting from new optimism among global investors, particularly about the impact of US president Joe Biden’s proposed new $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package that is expected to be passed by Congress this week.

The more optimistic tone on the US market and elsewhere has made investors more confident, and willing to take on more risk – particularly on emerging market investments.

“All of a sudden, because of this increased risk taking (…) emerging markets are suddenly in favour,” says Edgar Mafoko, portfolio manager at FNB Wealth and Investment.

So far this year, foreigners have bought almost R10.6 billion more in South African shares than they have sold, JSE data show. In the same period last year, they were already the net sellers of R4 billion in SA shares.

In recent weeks, investors have finally starting buying long-shunned shares in companies that are focused on South Africa.

Mafoko says Woolies’ strong trading update – along with other “very good results” from local retailers helped to restore confidence.

“The consumer isn’t in as bad a space as we thought.” But he warned that there is still much gloom ahead for the local economy, with the impact of increased unemployment that will probably only still come through later on in the year.

“Our fundamentals haven’t changed locally. Economically it’s going to be a very gloomy year. We’re expecting disappointment after disappointment,” he said.

Mafoko expects that Naspers and Prosus should continue to remain strong this year, and expects more gains from platinum and gold mining shares, on the back of China’s continued economic recovery which is driving an increased demand for commodities.

 

Source: Supermarket & Retailer

Consumer price inflation for 2020 was the lowest in 16 years and the second lowest in 51 years as demand remained muted on the effects of the Covid-19 lockdowns.

This could give stimulus to the SA Reserve Bank (Sarb) to leave unchanged or cut interest rates when its Monetary Policy Committee wraps up its first meeting of the year tomorrow.

Data from Statistics South Africa (StatsSA) today showed that the average annual inflation rate for 2020 was a muted 3.3 percent, the lower end of the Sarb target band.

StatsSA said this was the lowest annual average rate since 2004 at 1.4 percent and the second lowest since 1969 at 3 percent.

According to the Sarb, one of the reasons for low inflation in 2004 was a firmer rand, which strengthened from R7.56 to the dollar in 2003 to R6.45 in 2004.

StatsSA said annual inflation ended 2020 at 3.1 percent in December, slightly lower than November’s reading of 3.2 percent.

The monthly increase in the CPI was 0.2 percent, up from zero percent in November.

The main contributors to the 3.1 percent annual inflation rate were food and non-alcoholic beverages; housing and utilities; and miscellaneous goods and services.

StatsSA said that three food groups recorded above average annual and monthly price increases in December as meat prices rose by 7.3 percent from a year ago and by 1.2 percent from November.

Prices in the oils and fats category climbed by 10.2 percent over 12 months and by 1.6 percent over one month.

Inflation in sugar, sweets and dessert products recorded an annual rise of 8.4 percent and a monthly rise of 1.1 percent.

 

Post-pandemic, most office workers are looking forward to returning and increasingly say they prefer to spend the majority of their workweek there too to meet face-to-face, socialise, brainstorm, and connect with each other again.

Linda Trim, director at Giant Leap, says that while workers have some new needs and expectations driven by COVID-19, most of the issues and trends raised were already here pre-COVID — and were just exacerbated by the pandemic.

Here are five workplace trends that have been accelerated and now are driving priorities for the new post-pandemic office:

1. Mobile

“Workers will now expect the ability to work remotely and the autonomy to match work to the right setting far beyond the pandemic”, said Trim. “Our pre-COVID research has consistently shown that people who spend at least a portion of their typical workweek outside the office have higher workplace satisfaction and score higher on indicators of innovation. She added that people working in a “hybrid model” – balancing days at the office with working from home – appear more deliberate with how they use their time and have higher job satisfaction overall.

2. Choice

Employees’ variety of work settings must now include the home. Said Trim: “Workers’ desire for choice in the workplace is not new. We find that employers who provide a spectrum of choices for when and where to work were seen as more innovative and higher-performing.” Our previous research found that innovative companies spend more time collaborating away from their desk and spend only about 3.5 days (74%) of their workweek in the office. Many workers depend on specific resources at their office. But the nature of work is changing — we’re becoming more versatile, agile, and collaborative. We need a wider array of solutions — both inside and outside the office.

3. Privacy

Many workers already struggled to find privacy in the workplace — now they expect to maintain the privacy they have become accustomed to at home.

“The trend toward more open environments has led to the rise of shared or unassigned seating to provide more space for collaborative areas for group work, but to the detriment of space for focusing or personal use,” says Trim.

Employees don’t want a complete reversal of these trends, but better space allocation. In our consulting, we find that “mostly open” workplaces were associated with higher performance and greater experience, but noise, privacy, and the ability to focus remain key determinants of workplace effectiveness. Striking the right balance will be key in the future.

4. Unassigned seating

Just months before the pandemic sent office workers home, global design and architecture firm Gensler reported in a 2020 Workplace Survey that workplace effectiveness was in decline. And those in unassigned seating were struggling the most. Says Trim: “In South Africa we’ve noticed workers overwhelmingly favour a desk assigned only to them and are typically not willing to trade an assigned desk for increased flexibility to work remotely. Organisations will need to develop clever space reservation programs to balance space utilisation, employee and team schedules, and safety.”

5. Health & well-being

“People expect health and wellness to be built into everything. As workers reprioritise the importance of health and well-being, employers now face mounting pressure to combine indoor and outdoor spaces, nudge healthy behaviours, and support a sense of psychological well-being.”

Across the globe, workers have experienced working from home, and many find their home environments provide greater comfort. Employers must now work harder to establish how their offices and workplace policies can support health and well-being.

“Now is an opportunity to create spaces where employees not only want to be, but to do their individual and collective best work,” Trim concludes.

By David Lyons for Daily Item

Office Depot’s parent company has rejected a $2.1 billion buyout offer Tuesday from the investor group that controls rival Staples.

But the Boca Raton company, which has been cutting costs and reshaping its strategy to appeal more to businesses, said it would entertain other possibilities that would avert tough regulatory scrutiny.

On Jan. 11, a group led by Sycamore Partners offered to buy ODP Corp. for $2.1 billion, or $40 a share. Staples warned that if Office Depot did not cooperate, it would start to buy out the shares of other stockholders starting in March.

The negative response was a setback to ODP shareholders, who had seen their stock rise to $47.64 since the offer was made more than a week ago. The shares were off by nearly 2% to $44.98 in midday trading on Tuesday.

A previous $6.3 billion bid by Staples in 2016 was rejected by federal authorities on antitrust grounds.

One year later, Staples was taken private by Sycamore Partners, which set up a subsidiary called USR Parent to control the longtime competitor of Office Depot.

According to a letter sent Tuesday from ODP to Sycamore, it would be better if Office Depot’s e-commerce and retail operations are sold to Staples to avoid the possibility of a protracted review by the Federal Trade Commission.

Another option would be a joint venture, said the letter, which was released Tuesday morning by ODP.

“Though both of these options require regulatory approval, we believe the regulatory risk of pursuing a retail-only transaction to be significantly lower than your proposed transaction,” ODP told the Staples owners.

ODP also challenged Sycamore to specifically lay out how it would deal with the antitrust hurdles that it believes would be inevitably raised again by federal officials who rejected a deal on similar grounds five years ago.

“If Sycamore remains determined to propose a potential acquisition of the entire company, we call on you to expressly address the regulatory uncertainty by committing to bear the risk of potential antitrust obstacles or required remedies through a customary ‘hell or high water’ provision,” the letter said.

In the meantime, ODP said, the company’s “foremost goal remains maximising value for our shareholders.”

 

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