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Covid-19 has broken our country even further – now it’s time to heal the land

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James Blignaut is Professor extraordinaire attached to the School of Public Leadership, Stellenbosch University and honorary research associate attached to the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON). The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any of the institutions he might be associated with.

The way Covid-19 has been handled has not healed our country – it has broken it further. While it taught us the wonderful world of e-meetings and undercover trades, it has not brought us together. On the contrary, it has fragmented us even more, causing more polarisation, not less.

Change. Change is more certain to reach you and me long before either death or taxes, or being taxed to death, will do. Such change can happen incrementally, gradually, step-by-step. This kind of change is ever-present, yet hardly noticeable over the short term. Unrelenting, though, the pressure for grotesque change is building. Such grotesque change is called revolutionary change.

Revolutionary change is always violent (but can be bloodless), always a disruptor and implies rapid system-wide, and is irreversible. It happens when certain long-standing thresholds of either ecological, social, or financial (or a combination of all three) resistance have been crossed – when society-wide and ecological boundaries that existed for long are no more. It is as if the water has been pushing against the wall, causing a few cracks – incremental change – and then the wall breaks, causing revolutionary change to the dam infrastructure and everything in the wake of the flood of water downstream. Catastrophic change.

Such is the time we are in – a time of revolutionary change.

The pressure has been building, over decades, waiting for this moment. Systems producing healthy, nutritious food collapsed in the 1970s when big agro-chemical companies promised solutions to the farmer that the world has never seen. This led to the collapse of the farm ecosystem and the production of healthy food.

The rise of the fast-food industry, also in the 1970s, led to a nutrient deficient diet, breaking down the immune system of people. Still, in the 1970s, technological change combined with rapid changes in behavioural patterns and the Cold War led to the unprecedented increase in the use of fossil fuels and the insatiable demand for more material wealth and prosperity. People started chasing after riches, conveniences and gimmicks never even been considered fathomable. This phenomenon was aided by the media and the Hollywood machinery selling the American dream to all and sundry – all the time broadening the inequity gap between the haves and have-nots. Somebody or something had to pay, and dearly so for the rise in opulence, and it was nature.

Still stuck in the 1970s, let us not forget the rise of the fiat currency and the abandonment of the gold standard. Fractional banking came to the fore – and thus debt spiralled into orbit. As it was spinning out of control, so both the ability and likelihood of debt repayment disappeared like mist before the sun in the morning. Yet, the fiat currency and the fractional banking system facilitated the distribution of wealth from the hands of the populus into those of an elite core.

Gradually, but unrelentingly so over the past 50 years, the combined pressures of a collapsing ecosystem, deteriorating immune systems, the rise of fast food and the hunger for instant gratification (combined with a strong sense of arrogant entitlement), the increase in chemical depositions, the increase in both the rate and volume of material throughput and energy consumption, and debt, became too much for the social-ecological system to bear.

The mayhem and further fragmentation created by the way the virus has been treated has opened a leadership void. This void will be filled either by further political maladroitness, and/or by illicit operators and operations, or by a sector that can bring about healing.

Several environmental, social, and financial thresholds were breached. Several early warning signs were given, like the 2008 financial crisis and the numerous social unrests. The conditions were ripe, however, for a perfect storm. Covid-19 was but the final straw – yet it became the focus of global action. The system-wide cracks caused by the changes originating mostly in the 1970s are far more disconcerting than the virus itself. Fighting Covid-19, while neglecting those issues that caused the structural damage to society at all fronts, borders on naïve stupidity. Yet, unfortunately, over the past three months, we witnessed such naïve stupidity in glorious action. Leaders, globally, rallied around combating the virus in a range of ways, but united in their dedication. Ironically, in a world filled with healthy people and intact ecosystems in which debt was under control, the virus would hardly have made the news.

The unprecedented focus on the virus and not on the underlying structural causes of the current crisis has many unintended consequences. Into an environmentally, socially, and economically fragmented world, another layer of fragmentation was introduced, i.e. those rendering essential services and those that don’t.

The message from the government is clear: teachers, you are not essential. People rendering professional services, you are not essential. Retailers, you are not essential. Sports men and women, you are not essential. Liquor and cigarette store owners, you are not just non-essential, you are downright evil.

Thus, today, we awake to a truly transformed world. Those who are truly essential are those who can operate in the dark alleys of illicit trade; those who know how to operate effectively and undisturbed under lockdown – profiting while others become impoverished. They are those who have been able to open and/or gain access to undercover trade routes, trade routes that are not going to disappear upon the (re)opening of the economy.

Subconsciously there is even another layer of fragmentation: those who are able to organise and operate en mass, going to the streets in great throngs seemingly immune to becoming infected by the virus, while the individuals who desire to just touch the beach are considered a threat to societal welfare. A dichotomy that shouts it out loud that we now live in a world haunted by police hypocrisy and political ineptness.

The way the virus has been handled has not healed our country – it has broken it further. While it taught us the wonderful world of e-meetings and undercover trades, it has not brought us together. On the contrary, it has fragmented us even more, causing more polarisation, not less. The country is hurting more, much more, not because of the virus, but because of how the situation has been (mis)managed.

I would argue, as I have done in the past, that now, more than ever, it is agriculture that can bring about the much-needed healing. The sector must rise above politics – the politicians have broken the system beyond recognition and are incapable of bringing about healing. The sector must rise above race and land that divides – if all is lost in the battle for race and land, who will be left to buy the produce?

Transcending race and land is required to ensure the moral/ethical, social and economic survival of all. The sector must rise above the hard-ingrained methods of farming taught and applied the last 50 years. Another plough, another heavy dose of chemicals and the land’s productive capability is finally destroyed while the lenders demand the collateral. If the farmer desires to stay in business, change is required with respect to agricultural practices, change towards practices that will heal both the land and people – regenerative practices.

The mayhem and further fragmentation created by the way the virus has been treated has opened a leadership void. This void will be filled either by further political maladroitness, and/or by illicit operators and operations, or by a sector that can bring about healing.

There is none better positioned than arguably the most unlikely – agriculture. DM

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