Future generations may someday discuss modern human history in terms of “BC-19” and “AC-19”: “Before Covid-19” and “After Covid-19”. How they will compare these two periods is up to us. Some of the changes we are experiencing as a result of the pandemic are out of our control. But we also face choices, even opportunities, to recreate our After Covid-19 world in a way that improves human lives across the globe. As we approach Africa Day later this month, on May 25, in the grip of the pandemic, we need to consider how our continent can thrive in an AC-19 world.
Economists, sociologists, political scientists and health experts are among the various analysts who are speculating about the future. Although they represent different disciplines, their views are all, in some way, informed through higher education and scientific research. Researchers and academics have been speaking out for generations now about the growing hazards of climate change, mass extinction of species, poverty and inequality, gender inequality and resource shortages and the unsustainability of the global economy. Their work informs the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) of the United Nations.
The tragedy we face today is that we, as nations and industries and economies, have paid little attention to the warnings of these experts. We listened instead to the voice of profit. But there is a different set of voices that is aligning with these warnings: Generation C.
For the past decade or more, Generation C has been seeing the way the world is going and trying to warn us about it. They are the powerful new force in consumer culture around the globe, in Western nations as well as in developing countries. The Occupy Wall Street movement, which tried to warn us about economic inequality in 2011, and more recently environmental activist Greta Thunberg are just two examples. Gen C is not just an age group; it’s an attitude and mindset that describes people who care deeply about creation, curation, connection, community and achieving the SDGs — even at the expense of profit. It is a social movement that is empowered by social media, where any individual has the power to speak out.
Gen C activists mobilised the Fallist movement that started on university campuses across South Africa and spread to many countries, starting in 2015: #RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall, #PatriarchyMustFall, to name a few. With lockdown, student activism has moved off the campuses this year, but it continues on social media. As a South African university leader, I have come to realise that for education to be relevant to the kind of world Gen C wants to build, we have to be willing to allow Gen C to change our educational institutions and point out our blind spots. Universities can no longer rely only on the traditional Western model of thinking: instead, we need to develop curricula and an institutional culture that embraces Gen C’s diversity and their demand to be included in the decisions that will affect their lives. This will not always be easy, given the inequalities of our society, but it is important that we are consistently challenged.
Although these student movements have taken place mainly in universities — including in the Western world — they are part of a larger challenge to the ruling elite, confronting the constitutional agnosticism, corruption and white privilege that contribute to poverty and inequality. The deeper issues of cultural alienation are not just African issues — they are urgent international problems with dangerous potential effects on how we view gender, sexuality, religion, language and other factors of identity.
Gen C challenges the expectation that young people should assimilate and accept the changes that traditional education seems to demand of them. They call for a complete rejection of the systemic, symbolic and intellectual “worlds” that have long been inhospitable to diversity. In South Africa, for instance, their message was that they don’t feel at home in our universities. They do not recognise themselves in what they have to learn, the buildings, the artworks, the curriculum or the people leading them. So they demanded the decolonisation of higher education. As university leaders, we have begun taking the necessary steps to establish institutional changes, because education needs to address the issues of the world we and our students live in.
The modern South African campus is a microcosm of our national society, with students representing many different communities, languages, religions, sexual identities and educational backgrounds. By changing how higher education works, we are equipping the new generation of university students to change that wider world. For higher education to be sustainable, we need to engage with Gen C and help to initiate the changes that Africa and the world need after Covid-19. Otherwise, we will foster a disconnect between education and the lives we want to change. The education we offer will lack the power to change lives.
We are seeing the effects of Covid-19, not just in the healthcare sector but also in business, transport, manufacturing, the informal sector, education and our social lives. The virus is bringing into high relief the fact that the old ways of life, the economic choices that have fostered poverty and inequality, are unsustainable. South Africa was experiencing this even before the pandemic, as our economy was downgraded to junk status. But now the entire world is facing an economic crisis. And we know that even more changes are coming.
Before the world ever heard of coronavirus disease, we were already anticipating the changes that the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) would bring. We are now seeing how necessary digital platforms have become to allow us to continue to connect with each other in different ways.
Africans have a wonderful resource for dealing with the challenges brought by 4IR and Covid-19. It is called creativity. Young Africans especially are applying what they learn through higher education to help vulnerable communities find ways to thrive. Student entrepreneurship competitions showcase ideas that young South Africans are developing to improve the delivery of education, healthcare and basic skills that people need to grow their informal businesses.
A remarkable example is a mobile app called Abalobi, that has changed the lives of the vulnerable, small-scale fishing industry along our coastline. Abalobi began as a postgraduate technology project at the University of Cape Town: students working in partnership with the local fishing community. It now operates as a registered nonprofit organisation, offering an app suite that gives fishers direct marketing access to restaurants for their daily catches; improves their quality control and profitability; and promotes good stewardship of fish resources. All using the technology of a smartphone.
Since the old ways of doing business and consuming resources are proving unsustainable, we need to open the global economic platform to the voices that we have overlooked in the past: voices from the Global South, female voices, voices of people with different disabilities, voices of people who grew up in poverty and have experienced the kinds of problems the world needs to solve: the voices Gen C represents. Many of them are young; many come from disadvantaged backgrounds and many were previously rendered invisible in mainstream discourses. Higher education can provide the necessary skills and knowledge for these “new voices” to develop groundbreaking solutions that will help establish different ways for the world to grow.