On 7 January 2021, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, South Africa's Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies, issued a press statement condemning the ongoing destruction of cellphone towers in South Africa. As has been the case in other parts of the world, some South Africans are burning cellphone towers (including non-5G towers) based on the incorrect conspiracy theories that link 5G towers to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even though COVID-19 is spreading in countries where no 5G telecommunications infrastructure exists, people around the world continue to make the false claim that telecommunications technology is linked to the ongoing global pandemic.

"It is regrettable that the much-needed network infrastructure is being destroyed. The country [is] currently needs resilient and high-speed connectivity for every citizen to enable them to participate meaningfully in the digital economy. Furthermore, mobile telephony is crucial in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. The destruction of network towers compromises multi-pronged efforts and initiatives to stem the spread of the virus. We therefore urge the police to arrest anyone who is threatening of removing infrastructure network stations or towers," said Ndabeni-Abrahams.

A press statement issued by Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, South Africa's Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies, to condemn the destruction of cell phone towers across South Africa as a result of the spread of fake news regarding 5G technology.

Vodacom and MTN cellphone towers damaged in South Africa

Since the start of 2021, Vodacom and MTN, two of South Africa's largest telecommunications companies, have reported at least 3 of their cellphone towers being damaged or burnt. The companies have further said that they have evidence that their infrastructure was vandalized by protesters who linked 5G technology to the spread of COVID-19.

So far, it is known that some of these towers were located in the Kwazulu Natal province in South Africa.

The conspiracy theory doesn't originate in South Africa and has seen cellphone towers being damaged in more developed countries such as the USA and UK. What fuels the false claims is that  5G is used to spread COVID-19 infections is the fact that China is the clear leader as far as the deployment and development of 5G is concerned. Furthermore, people go on to this to the origin of the coronavirus in China.

However, other conspiracy theories have been fuelling this in South Africa.

Roll cloud confusion

Last week two videos went viral on social media and WhatsApp among some South Africans.

The first video shows someone in Daveyton pointing at a cloud and incorrectly claiming that it is a "5G cable" that is traveling towards Nelspruit. The social media posts and WhatsApp messages that accompanied the video in some cases claimed that it was spreading COVID-19 as the cloud resulted in rain in some areas.

A person is seen pointing at a roll cloud, a type of an arcus cloud, and incorrectly saying it is a "5G cable." During the same week that the video went viral, some cell phone towers in South Africa were damaged as people continued spreading fake news about 5G.

To understand this, and another video that was also making the rounds, I reached out to Allen Versfeld, host, and producer of the Urban Astronomer podcast and website, which he uses to show off the people behind South Africa's considerable contributions to science and astronomy. Allen also currently serves as the director of Citizen Science at the Astronomical Society of South Africa and runs a small IT services consultancy.

Allen was quick to point out that the first video, apparently taken in Daveyton, looks more like a cloud.

"The first video is just a cloud - I've seen lots like that!"

Allen went on to highlight that he is more knowledgeable about what happens above the earth's atmosphere than in it, having said that, he added that he had previously witnessed not-so-common cloud structures at a previous place they stayed in on the outskirts of Johannesburg. One such cloud structure is what he called a "supercell."

Supercell cloud spotted on the R511, between Diepsloot and Hartbeespoort on the outskirts of Johannesburg. 📷 Allen Versfeld

A supercell, although it looks scary if you are not familiar with it as Allen would also point out, is commonly known as the "king of thunderstorms." Although they are generally not common, as compared to cumulonimbus clouds, they are known for producing severe weather conditions. Supercells are strong rotating clouds that are fueled by a relatively long-lasting updraft of air.

This brings us to the low, horizontal, tube-shaped cloud formation that was spotted in Daveyton, South Africa, and was reported to be also causing some rainfall. That is known as a roll cloud, which is a type of an arcus cloud.

As the American Meteorological Society explains, roll clouds are relatively rare. "They (roll clouds) are completely detached from the convective storm's cloud base, thus differentiating them from the more familiar shelf clouds. Roll clouds appear to be rolling about a horizontal axis because of the shearing effects and horizontal vorticity provided by the differing air masses."

Roll cloud photographed in South Durban on 20 November 2013. 📷 South Coast Sun

5G is not in any way connected to COVID-19

As mentioned, there was also a second video which would in some cases accompany the video of the roll cloud in Daveyton. This video, showed thick smoke moving in the sky with blinking lights at its head.

As with the roll cloud video, many South Africans drew false conclusions that the two videos are somehow related and have to do with the spread of COVID-19 via "5G cables" or "5G clouds." This is false and even more bizarre considering that the second video, as Allen was able to quickly fact check, is a video from Russia in 2017 showing a Boeing 787.

"It's a Boeing 787. It was flying at 33,000 feet at the time, somewhere above the east coast of Russia, filmed by another airliner."

As many telecommunications and health professionals and experts have pointed out, 5G does NOT cause the spread of COVID-19. This is simply because biological viruses cannot travel or be transmitted on radio waves or mobile networks.

COVID-19, as the World Health Organization (WHO) has repeatedly explained, spreads through respiratory droplets when an infected person speaks, coughs or sneezes. Another way it is transmitted is when you touch a contaminated surface.

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