Mondli Makhanya: Will we emerge as a new nation?

The coronavirus has halted a number of events. (Budrul Chukrut, SOPA Images, LightRocket via Getty Images)
The coronavirus has halted a number of events. (Budrul Chukrut, SOPA Images, LightRocket via Getty Images)

When we meet again after this traumatic period of disease, death, isolation and no football, will we go back to our tired old debates and enmities, or will we focus on engineering an ambitious future as a 21st-century nation? asks Mondli Makhanya.

Week three of no football. This is now really, really, really, really intolerable. So intolerable that, by next week, there might be five more reallys added to this sentence.

But tough times call for coping mechanisms. One of the mechanisms that this lowly newspaperman has found has been to pretend that he himself is a football and then kick himself.

It’s not much fun, but, hey, what can a man do? Besides, it is not banned according to the lockdown regulations gazetted a few days ago.

Seismic events like this pandemic inevitably prompt thinking and discussions about their long-term impact. They make us think about the before and the after, and the lesson that a particular crisis or event has taught us.

An event such as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991 and the attendant collapse of communism in Eastern Europe led to a bonanza of publications analysing what the world might look like after the Cold War.

The 2001 terrorist attacks on various sites in the US had us dividing the world into a pre- and post-9/11 world. As did the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.

But never in modern history has a health catastrophe been as defining as the Covid-19 coronavirus. We now know that the world – and the behaviour of those who inhabit it – will not be the same again.

The pandemic will fundamentally alter the way we live, conduct business, educate ourselves and interact with one another. Nations and their leaders will change the way they relate to each other.

Nobody quite knows whether these changes will be negative or positive, but you can bet your bottom dollar that books that seek to impart wisdom on this subject are being penned as we speak.

There is already a surfeit of opinion pieces and analyses on this subject that have been published and proferred on all media platforms.

An insightful one is called Civilisation, Interrupted by Alan Stoga, the chairperson of the Sweden-based Tällberg Foundation.

Stoga compares the pandemic with Noah’s flood, which was apparently based on massive flooding around the Tigris River and Black Sea regions more than 5 000 years ago. That deluge had a huge impact on the geography of the region, as well as on human, animal and plant life – and on the evolution of civilisation.

He poses questions related to Covid-19: “What will the receding waters reveal? Will border closings, national hoarding of medical equipment, and finger-pointing at ‘foreigners’ for spreading disease transform international relations?

Will some countries’ healthcare systems have collapsed, exposing populations to other, more dangerous risks? Will intergenerational tensions – already high in the West – explode or be calmed by a disease that mostly targets (in terms of fatalities) seniors?

Will isolation coupled with newfound digital habits transform how people relate to each other, producing either more caring, empathetic societies or more ‘bowling alone’ ones? Will we foreswear seeking global solutions to global problems, even if the alternatives of going it alone are obviously ridiculous?”

Stoga paints three possible scenarios for a post-Covid-19 world. The first is humanity returning to the status quo of “a system that had been designed for a world that had long since changed”.

The second is the acceleration of “deglobalisation” and the speeding up of nationalism that has been emerging in different parts of the world in recent years; a system in which responses to global challenges are tackled myopically by countries rather than from a collective point of view.

The third is to “use the experience of having stared into the Covid-19 abyss to re-engineer systems, institutions, protocols ... in ways that might be relevant to the 21st century.”

Stoga says he doubts that the first scenario will happen; fears that we will go for the second; and hopes that humanity will take the third option.

He argues that, given the instincts of the current leaders of powerful countries such as the US, China, Europe and Russia, the first two options seem likely.

“There is literally no chance that they will forgo short-term political [interests] in an effort to transform how the world works for the common good.”

He states hopefully that “psychologists argue that crisis brings out the best in people” and that perhaps voters will demand better leadership after the hardships they are currently facing.

“In the end, leadership will matter. We need leaders who are global, committed to universal values, innovative and courageous. Leaders who understand that their role is to take people to where they have not been, but to where they need to be.”

This is very relevant for South Africans. When we meet again after this traumatic period of disease, death, isolation and no football, will we go back to our tired old debates and enmities, or will we focus on engineering an ambitious future as a 21st-century nation?

Will we be tolerant of leaders who drag us backwards and keep us plodding on in one spot, or will we demand much more of them?

We have plenty of time on our hands to apply our minds to the question of what kind of progressive 21st-century nation we want to be.

So, when we meet again, our conversation will hopefully be a lot more mature and refined.

- Mondli Makhanya is Editor-in-Chief of City Press

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