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The shape of things to come


Ranking distinctly high in the list of imaginative scientific literature is a classic text published in 1884 by an English clergyman and Shakespearean scholar, Edwin Abbott. This provocative satire, captured appropriately through the work of fiction titled Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, paints a dystopian picture of patriarchal Victorian Britain. In Flatland, as the name suggests, life is strictly two dimensional and all habitats are either lines, triangles, circles or polygons. 

Here, it is only the number of sides in the habitat’s shape that determines its level in the hierarchy. Similarly, men — no matter their limitations or shortcomings — are characterised by larger shapes with at least two sides. Women — no matter their gifts or talents —  can only amount to a straight line. 

The narrator of the story, A. Square, is, of course, a man and favourably placed in the pecking order  — he has four sides! Any shape that is out of sync with the norm is strictly undermined if not condemned to some underclass below everything else. This is the usual order of things in Flatland, until one day, A. Sphere pays a visit from space and all hell breaks loose. 

Sometimes it takes the extraordinary for a new world to emerge from the old. Birth seldom comes without labour pains. As the rest of the world readies for the darkest hour, precipitated by the very unfortunate reality of Covid-19, there are realities that are beginning to dawn on all of us. 

Foremost among these is the reality that, although this adversity too will come to pass, in its wake will be a world never known to man before. 

We are also beginning to appreciate that, in the final analysis, we are all the same. Shape, in all its forms, does not matter. This invisible enemy is proving to all that the fragility of life knows no boundaries, nor scales. In its face, we are all equal, and no one is spared. We are realising that preparedness is not only the ultimate weapon, but is also never redundant. And, lastly, populism has proven once more not to be the best virtue in the worst of times; some level of unpopularity is unavoidable if not genuinely acceptable. 

If China emerged the strongest, it wouldn’t be because of its size on the planet, but its preparedness for the worst, even in the best of times. It takes a prepared people to have a hospital fully manned by robots where and when it matters most. China did that. The decisiveness of leadership to take some of the most unpopular decisions, when warranted, would also be counted among China’s remarkable traits. 

But there is also something worth observing when it comes to China. The ability to turn almost every setback to advantage has become a Chinese culture. From the Great Leap Forward to the Cultural Revolution and the Four Modernisations of Deng Xiaoping; the list is endless. As the world begins to applaud this nation for their success in defeating the monster coronavirus — almost —  China celebrates the completion of the most successful work-from-home experiment. 

The wheels of fortune never ceased to grind, at least completely, even in the midst of all the turmoil. Schools, business, government and some industries continued to function via the digital space during the lockdown. In essence, most of the lessons learnt will continue well beyond the Covid-19 episode, they say. It perfectly lends credence to the old English adage, “Every cloud has a silver lining”.

So, what silver linings come with the storm cloud of Covid-19? Undoubtedly, a cleaner environment and a much quieter world. Having more than a quarter of the world’s population on lockdown means fewer cars on the road, fewer boats on the canals in Europe and near-zero plane activity in the airspace. Carbon dioxide levels have not been this low in many years. Of course, this is all conditional and could turn out to be very temporary if we default to our old ways. But for now, this is good. 

Closer to home; nothing could have spurred South Africa into assuming its rightful place in the digital world like Covid-19. We either go digital, or we perish. So far, it looks like we have chosen to go digital. 

Schools and universities, in particular, have rolled up their sleeves in preparation for online learning. Many sectors of government and the private sector have adopted the work-from-home approach, not because they can or because they want to, but because they have to. It’s the only option if they’re going to survive. 

Again, this is good. If permanently adopted, these injunctions would go a long way to make South Africa a much better place in many ways. 

For the first time, we all are made to understand what the purpose is, and how the various spheres of government operate. Our inherently disintegrated National System of Innovation is forced, literally for the first time, to work in an integrated fashion that seeks to leverage on the complementarity of capabilities within. 

Ploughing one’s own furrow is not going to work this time. Various individuals, labour, business and civic organisations have put their best foot forward to fight and defeat this scourge. It is all shoulders to the wheel and, dare I say, shapes no longer matter. Above all else, we have seen decisive leadership like never before. Amid all the chaos, our faith and hope in our beautiful country have been revived.

Together, we are leaving Flatland for a world not fully known at this stage, but one we are certainly prepared for. This time it did not take A. Sphere to prompt us, but the common enemy, Covid-19. 

Thokozani Majozi is a professor of chemical engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand where he holds the NRF-DST chair in sustainable process engineering and the chair of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. Dr Fikile Ndlovu is the deputy director general: strategic management, monitoring and evaluation in the office of the premier in KwaZulu-Natal 

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Thokozani Majozi
Professor Thokozani Majozi is a South African Research Chair Initiative chair in sustainable process engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand and chairperson of the CSIR.

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