/ 5 August 2020

Students, we will need your critical thinking after the Covid-19 hard reset

(John McCann/M&G)
(John McCann/M&G)


One of the toughest things about Covid-19 is how it has disrupted education. As a university academic, I feel for students who have been sent home with limited resources for online study.

At my university, there has been an upsurge of NSFAS students over the last two years. Finally, I was having classes where the overwhelming majority of students were on NSFAS. While all students are good, students from poor socioeconomic backgrounds are in the best position to make a difference to inequality.

While many have struggled, a significant number have overcome very difficult conditions to return assessments. For those who have not been able to keep up: do not give up. Find a way to get back into the system, whatever it takes.

What we are going through now is not a minor glitch. It is a hard reset. It combines the effects of two of the worst crises of the previous century: the 1918 flu pandemic and the 1929 market crash. It is happening when major countries are led by populist, science-denying demagogues who have made the crisis worse than it should have been. We can only hope that we do not see the other terrible kind of crisis of the twentieth century: a world war.

Nonetheless, there are positives: the Trump administration’s appeal to white supremacists has backfired badly to the extent that the #BlackLivesMatter movement has been embraced by many white Americans from conservative backgrounds. A pure capitalist model that stacks the game heavily in favour of big business and oligarchs is under threat in a way that has not happened since the 1930s.

#RhodesMustFall and other movements recognising the need to remove symbols of past hate and oppression have new energy now that the wheels are falling off white supremacy so spectacularly. This is a moment we should embrace as a society — no more is this the stuff of isolated protests, but a worldwide movement.

The challenge is no longer tearing down these symbols, it is building a new social contract that clearly and definitively puts all this behind us.

All of this means that imagination, skills and sharp, original thinking are really essential.

Despite all the damage a hard reset can cause, it is also an opportunity to rethink the fundamentals. If we claw our way back to a “normal” based on where we were before, we will return to the same problems with the added costs of a major economic meltdown.

South Africa is long overdue for a hard reset. We are one of the most unequal societies on Earth, public health and education are disgracefully inadequate, municipal services countrywide are in a state of collapse. Add to this the problems inherited from the apartheid regime that should have been addressed long ago: urban architecture that distances the poor from economic opportunity, ineffectual rural governance structures and almost no decent public transport.

One of the big obstacles to real change is entrenched investment in the way things are now. Taxis as transport for profit do part of the job of public transport but can’t cover the cases where routes or times are not profitable. But taxi operators have proved resistant to being supplanted by public transport. Restructuring urban architecture is very hard and bound to run into resistance from those who benefit from the way things are now. Public health and education have deep, systemic flaws that will be hard to remedy.

Many of these problems are hard to solve with no obvious solutions, but approximate solutions that get part-way there are better than leaving things as they are. As with dealing with a pandemic, waiting for a perfect plan before moving is a recipe for inaction. Unlike a pandemic, these problems are very slow in building and have become entrenched.

Faced as we are with a hard reset, there is an opportunity to rethink these things. Public health has to be addressed to minimise casualties of the pandemic. Public education has to be rethought to make up for lost class time. Urban architecture is more clearly an issue than before because of the way long, crowded commutes can spread the disease.

If we use this opportunity to fix these problems, Covid-19 will be less of a disaster.

If we do not use this opportunity, we could end up going back a long way.

Students: I wish you well in coping with your new experiment in distance learning. We are going to need your skills, determination and fresh thinking to turn this around. Use this time well. Be resourceful, work things out for yourself as much as you can, work around the hard problems, get community support. These are all things that will stand you in good stead in the strange new world that is unfolding.

Your usual academic support is still there, just distanced. I like to hear from students now even more than usual.

Above all, believe in yourself. Your own capability is your biggest asset. You would not be where you are now, particularly if you are from an impoverished background, unless you had it in you to succeed. You also need to be proactive in demanding attention when the system fails you. Being assertive, independent-minded and being creative will be essential skills in the new world that is unfolding.

I do not know where this will end up. What I do know is that when students are allowed back on campus and distancing is no longer essential, I look forward to seeing you all and hearing what you have learned.

Philip Machanick is an associate professor of computer science at Rhodes University. These are his own views.