Who could have imagined that it would be a global health pandemic that would accelerate our transition into the information age (or have we leapfrogged into the innovation age)?
Previous economic developments ushered in new global eras such as the industrial age but this time, it’s a pandemic that is entrenching a new era of innovation.
Although many first world countries have left the industrial age, Africa has lagged in transitioning into the information age because of our heavy reliance on manufacturing, but with the Covid-19 coronavirus lurking invisibly among us, we dare to seize the opportunity to use technology and innovation to enhance our connections and enable economic advancement.
Whether it’s through cashless payment services, mobile and digital banking, Zoom calls and webinars, online education and consultations, Covid-19 has confined us to our homes with three options: waiting to return to jobs that require manual labour; use technology to adapt to offering professional services or use technology to find alternative ways of earning an income.
For those who have “digital access” and some familiarity with the “tech world”, we are adapting and forging ahead as we continue to earn our keep.
Even on the front lines of the health sector, virtual consultations are officially here in South Africa. When my doctor Whatsapped me the good news with a “Hey Boytjie, just to let you know that your corona test came back negative”, I knew I had moved, with very little fanfare, into the era of telemedicine.
I had flown into OR Tambo International Airport from Heathrow Airport in the UK, having been in the US for a couple of weeks prior to our national lockdown. Airport personnel were performing tasks usually only done by doctors – using the latest technology to monitor passengers’ temperatures.
In previous revolutions, it was young people that were on the frontlines. I would argue that in this global lockdown – with 81% of the world either partially or wholly working remotely – it is once again young people that are on the frontlines. They have the zeal, skills and hope to lead us into this new world.
I have seen in these past weeks, young lawyers in our firm and beyond, coming to the fore and advising clients on the new normal as though they’ve seen the horizon and realised this moment in history is theirs to lead.
Watching these younger lawyers emerge has taken me back to the struggle days, when I was part of a young crop of privileged lawyers, finding creative ways to assist anti-apartheid activists. The “older” lawyers in our friendship circle provided us with the framework for our engagements, but we were the ones pushing the boundaries and risking imprisonment for outcomes that were impossible to imagine.
Millennials are often called “entitled and unmotivated”, but these past few weeks have left me inspired by a renewed purpose in them, displayed in their unique ability to innovate and apply technical prowess across digital platforms.
Last month, these young people were wearing armour created for them by the old guard. Now I see them wearing armour that they’ve grown up with – armour that they are confident and comfortable in.
This pandemic has given them a unique purpose that has perhaps been difficult for them to find until now. Whether it was ensuring the contractual rights of a client, protecting the privacy and personal information of individuals and nations as cyber threats grow, or defending the role of the fourth estate during a lockdown, I see these youngsters playing a front line role in the professional services space of this new era.
They are opening up rights to healthcare, holding civil servants accountable with the public purse as widespread hunger grows, representing those abused during a state of disaster and ensuring that unfair lockdown regulations are challenged. These young lions are a battalion joined at the barricade behind the life and death front line warriors that are doctors and nurses.
When the Industrial Revolution increased productivity and enabled mass production it also brought negative consequences such as oppressive working conditions, increased inequalities and social discontent. And there are perils of technological innovations that we need to be aware of in South Africa.
A legal fraternity that is able to identify and protect citizens and keep society on a sound moral grounding is critical at this time. The pandemic presents us with the opportunity to expedite difficult changes since we are already resetting, recalibrating and re-imagining.
We cannot claim to be agents for justice without actively pushing transformation and restitution in South Africa. I would encourage rising legal eagles to grasp the nettle and speed up transformation, particularly in the legal fraternity.
Even as the pandemic has created opportunities for fiscal restructuring, the urgency of the moment has provided the impetus to implement difficult ideals.
There are well known challenges posed by adopting technological advancements – increased inequality, lack of societal integration and increased social isolation.
But these are battles that will need to be fought and figured out by the millennials that are ideally suited and born to thrive in this new era. For some of us, it would be impossible to imagine, but I believe they are the ones that can do it!
* Nott is a director of Norton Rose Fulbright SA and is the head of the Africa team based in Johannesburg. He is also Caster Semenya’s lawyer.
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