Defend Truth


Ominous October, bullion’s silent revolution and the need to remain human


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 past is the only training manual we have. So, as we revel in the changing of the seasons and the beauty that October brings, we should also heed the lessons of the past – and the October hex that dogs the financial markets.

During the best of days, financial markets are a jittery, nervous affair – and more so during the month of October. From a financial point of view, it is as if October is hulled in gloomy suspense, and neither is such suspense baseless as the month has witnessed numerous market collapses in the past. It is hard not to note that in this, the most beautiful of all months, when nature transitions from one season to another, and spectacularly so, financial markets occasionally opt to transition in spectacular fashion.

While we can be certain that the jacarandas are soon to bloom in Pretoria, will there be another grotesque transition in the financial markets during the October of 2020? I do not know, and any such claim and/or prediction by anybody will dangle on the edge of sorcery, although even Forbes magazine is starting to make noises that a crash could be imminent. 

What we do know, however, is that the broader geopolitical, economic and environmental context in which October 2020 finds itself is rather ominous, to put it mildly. Global debt is at impossible-to-ever-repay levels, and poverty and opulence intensify daily, wedging people further apart, shattering what social cohesion existed and generating further animosity. Political anxieties in the East and Middle East are sky-high, the US is gripped by uncertain anticipation of a winner-takes-all election and the world is reeling from the rather indifferent way in which the Covid-19 pandemic has been managed. 

To cap it all, a 94-year-old set the world record for the person to reach a million Instagram followers in the fastest time – Sir David Attenborough – who reached that milestone in just over four hours. How ironic, yet telling, that a warhorse for the environmental cause outperformed all sport and celebrity icons.

In and among this turmoil, bullion’s silent revolution has gone almost unnoticed. Bullion has always been, and probably will remain for some time to come, the go-to commodity in times of uncertainty and hardship. It is thus a useful, albeit imperfect, leading indicator of what might come. The price for gold is hinging at approximately R32,800/oz, while silver is at R12,500/kg – as can be seen in the charts below. This is an increase of 41% and 47% from September 2019, and 100% and 92.5% from September 2015. Even in US dollar terms the price of gold has risen by 64% and that of silver by 57% over the past five years, and 23% and 28% during the last year. These increases are mirrored in the price of Bitcoin, which has increased from $8,100 last September to its current level of $10,800. Somewhere, somebody with money is buying bullion, while people are (re)investing in Bitcoin


 More than ever, I am extremely grateful that I am not a trader in the financial markets – and to all my friends who are: may you have great wisdom this October and find pleasure and joy in nature’s never-ending beauty, and encouragement in camaraderie. 

For the rest of us, with market unpredictability a given and seemingly uncontrollable certainty, we must turn to those small things that matter greatly. 

Not too long ago, a train departed from a remote station early each morning to collect full milk cans along the route, the cans having been placed under a tree with nobody in sight, and were returned empty to that spot later. A person on a bicycle brought mail, in an envelope, and delivered it postbox by postbox, street by street. A young boy earned a few precious coins to be spent at the school’s snack shop by delivering the morning newspaper. Someone operated a telephone exchange, like my dad did, connecting his town to the rest of the world by inserting jacks into their designated sockets. And who can forget the milkman? 

Not too long ago, we lived in a world operated by humans. This human-operated world, several millenniums old, is disintegrating fast. The e-operated world overran it in three short, yet blistering, decades. In this highly connected, yet fragmented, atomised, e-operated world we are more, not less, vulnerable and exposed to system failures; failures that are beyond our influence and control with nobody to talk to but a foreign-sounding unsympathetic e-voice. 

While it would be foolish to blanketly utopianise and long after days gone by (after all, they had their full dose of undesirables as well), we need to learn from the past.

It is the only training manual we have.

We are the generation that straddles the divide between the long-lived human-operated epoch and the volatile, fast, unpredictable and uncertain e-operated world. Never in known human history has the entire population changed and readily forgone its operating system so radically, let alone in so little time. We are thus the people, objects even, in an unprecedented social-technical experiment, at a global level, with no historic reference point, with no control sample and no how-to-do guide. 

As a species that lived and functioned in tightly knit agrarian herds for ages, we have no history of and do not know how to operate in a fragmented, socially and physically isolated, and distanced cyberworld. If ever there has been a need – no, a necessity – to grow strong relationships with those you care for, as well as those within our communities, it is now.

Greater emphasis must be placed on some of the key values that underpin human-operated systems. These values might be considered old-fashioned, but they are as basic as mutual trust, respect, enhancing the dignity of others and the appreciation of life – with a strong emphasis on the regeneration thereof. 

These are values best expressed at both local and farm level. These values must be grown by actively nurturing human-operated – small though they might seem – systems such as book and food clubs, local games and sporting events, harnessing the strength of volunteers for restoration events like cleaning a river, beach or a public park, or fixing the potholes in a road. 

In the digital age it is important to remain human – and to work hard at being human – let the flowers, aroma and colours of October be part of our being as we developed shared experiences.

After all, we are humans and not a collection of barcodes. DM


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  • Sam van Coller says:

    Having grown up in a small village during World War 2, I can testify just how important this article is in the struggle to achieve real social progress in today’s world as distinct from economic and high tech growth. We need to embed new social institutions at community level that cut across divisions and include rather than exclude. This is why the Jerusalema Dance and the Hash Tag I’m Staying movements are so important. But we need much more

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