Pandemics are not new to the human experience

Just over 100 years ago, the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic was the most severe pandemic in recent human history.

Estimates are that about 100 million people, or one-third of the world’s population, were infected. An estimated 50 million worldwide perished. Economic depression and international wars followed.

Yet, the post war world was irrevocably changed. New nation states emerged as old, redundant empires collapsed. International multi-literalism emerged and, by the close of the 20th century, the world was firmly interlocked in what is widely termed and accepted as globalism. 

Yet globalisation too, heralded its risks and perils. Economic imbalances, societal fault-lines, disparities of income, skewed opportunities and poverty. Added too, the emergence of previously unknown pandemics, that potentially can ravage humanity, before there is time for an adequate response.

We are currently experiencing such a dire threat to us all.   

It is now a month since our country commenced a nation-wide lockdown for the first time in the history of our young democracy. A vital response to the perils presented by the COVID-19 global pandemic.

Evidenced by its catastrophic impacts on many, better resourced countries, than ourselves. An enormous disruption for all, an upheaval and shock to our social fabric and our economy. A time of uncertainty.

We witness numerous challenges imposing enormous burdens on our people. Faced with a real, a great and materialising danger, to every one of us and to our society.

Yet this lockdown is vital, indeed necessary to save the lives of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, or millions of our people. Many of whom are vulnerable to such a pandemic.

It is a time when South Africans need to stand together, and indeed are doing so, each in their own way. Each with their contribution and each with the own special role to play during this fraught era.

It is indeed a national response, at a time when our country commemorates Freedom Day, on 27 April 2020.

This annual celebration of South Africa’s first non-racial democratic elections of 1994, bears witness and testimony to our transition into a democratic state governed by a globally acclaimed Constitution. A moment that irrevocably changed the path of South African history.

Speaking on the first anniversary of Freedom Day, in 1995, President Nelson Mandela reflected.

“As dawn ushered in this day, the 27th of April 1995, few of us could suppress the welling of emotion, as we were reminded of the terrible past from which we come as a nation; the great possibilities that we now have; and the bright future that beckons us”.

Born from the negotiations leading up to the 1994, our Constitution stands as an enduring symbol of our commitment to heal the rifts once dividing us, putting aside the past bitterness, while building a shared future.

Yet today, on Freedom Day, we again face uncharted territory, never before having experienced such a situation. A world we once knew, is literally changing day by day. Change does produce anxiety and uncertainty, for our world will never be the same again.

Yet, change also presents opportunities for renewal. For regeneration and for progress. For new ways, and new modes of thinking and doing.

The human experience shows us that in times of trial; innovation and new ideas emerge, leaving behind old, tired methods, ones unable to withstand change. Ways of doing, that are clearly redundant. Ones instead that are replaced by new horizons.

For we live in a time of the greatest technological revolution in human history. An enormous shift that rapidly presents new opportunities, sometimes racing so fast ahead, that we are slow to take it up.

Yet in our current challenge, we now have a moment to pause. To reflect on where it is that we have come from, how fast we have moved into new directions, opportunities presenting new pathways, despite the turbulent waters.

In this time of rejuvenation, of repurpose, flux and change, our role is to critically engage with new potentials, as they present themselves.

We can seize this historic moment of hope and renewal which presents itself. For we live in one of the unique moments in human history. A time in which we embrace new opportunities presented. All of which inform and underpin our learning, research and development.

New ways of enhancing and strengthening democratic practices and social justice in our society. Entering new horizons, we adapt, not only as a society, connected with the world.

Yet also as a university.

A Light from Africa – for humanity.

Together, celebrating Freedom Day.

Dr Garth Benneyworth; M.Inst.D
Head of Department: Heritage Studies
School of Humanities
Cell: +27 (0) 76 216 9463 

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