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The world is in crisis — we need leaders who can pull us back from the nuclear brink

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Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the seventh Rector of the United Nations (UN) University and UN Under Secretary-General.

We need to ensure that neither history nor man repeats itself and that we end all wars and bring more peace. We need to bring more peace because the world cannot afford another world war. A nuclear holocaust is now a distinct possibility.

We live in a world that is bereft of leadership. Europe, a continent known for its past wars, has become the centre of conflict again. The events of Ukraine are dangerously looking like a repeat of the First and Second World Wars. “History repeats itself, first as a tragedy and second as a farce”, wrote Karl Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, paraphrasing Hegel.

Not so, “history does not repeat itself. Man always does,” observed Voltaire. Perhaps Voltaire was not as poetic as Mark Twain, who observed that “history does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

But as leaders, we need to ensure that neither history nor man repeats itself and that we end all wars and bring more peace.

We need to bring more peace because the world cannot afford another world war. It cannot because the world has much more deadly weapons. A nuclear holocaust is now a distinct possibility. Nuclear weapons are perhaps the most dangerous weapons invented by man. They stem from the instability in the nucleus of certain active elements in the periodic table that are radioactive. The periodic table classifies chemical elements that make our world. Dmitri Mendeleev proposed it in 1869. 

Radioactivity was first observed by the French engineer Antoine Becquerel and was studied intensively by Marie and Pierre Curie. Here the order of the names is important because Marie was the leader and Pierre was the follower. The lesson we should draw from this is that to create a harmonious society, we must understand that sometimes we have to lead, and sometimes we have to follow.

Marie Curie remains the only person to win two Nobel Prizes in two different sciences, i.e. Chemistry and Physics. Her family remains the only family to receive several Nobel Prizes collectively, i.e. five among her husband, daughters and sons-in-law. The lesson we can draw here is that sometimes it is essential to lead as families.

The radioactivity research ultimately led to the splitting of the atom in Germany through nuclear fission and to the creation of the atom bomb in the United States. I shudder when I realise how dangerously close the Nazis came to building a bomb.

They did not build the bomb because Heisenberg’s calculations were off by a factor of 10 and the debate rages on as to whether Heisenberg knew his mistake and wanted to prevent the Nazis from getting the atomic bomb or whether Heisenberg was just wrong. The answer to this question we will never know, but what is important is that the chain reaction is real and we now have the atom bomb, which will destroy our civilisation if either man or history is allowed to repeat itself.

Science took nuclear fission to another level and discovered nuclear fusion and the hydrogen bomb, which is even deadlier. Einstein, accordingly, observed that he did not know what weapons would be used to fight the third world war, but he knew that we would be using sticks and stones to fight the fourth world war.

The truth is that we know what weapons will be used to fight the third world war. These weapons will include nuclear fission and fusion and will end civilisation. Our responsibility is to remove nuclear weapons from the face of this earth and usher in a truly peaceful society.

Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) is already doing that, say political scientists. MAD is a political theory derived from the mathematical field of Game Theory that states that nuclear powers cannot attack one another because the retaliation will be as deadly. Let us do more than rely on MAD. Arguably, we need to work hard to attain the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to achieve peace in our world.

The 17 identified SDGs are intended to be met by 2030. To paraphrase the SDGs within the context of peace, we need to end poverty and hunger to assure peace. We need good health and well-being to create harmony in society. We need quality education for us to understand what is at stake if we allow our world war to set upon us. We need gender equality to bring a more peaceful world noting that all previous wars were brought by men and not women and that we need a different type of leadership which is compassionate and forward-looking. We need to reduce inequality, especially paying attention to the emerging techno-feudalism that is reducing employment through automation brought by the Fourth Industrial Revolution.


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We need to bring clean water and sanitation. Wars of the future will be over resources such as energy and water. Already we have had the Iraq War which was over energy. We need affordable, renewable and clean energy to reduce carbon in our world and protect our people. As South Africans, we know all too well the harm that the technical and financial mismanagement and corruption of Eskom have done to our economy. We need decent work and economic growth to deal with the problem of poverty, inequality and unemployment.

South Africa needs to reindustrialise. To achieve this, quality education that pays attention to innovation is crucial. This requires multi-disciplinary education where those in the sciences and technology must learn human and social sciences and vice versa.

We need to build infrastructure. The state of our infrastructure is appalling. Our roads are littered with potholes. In our towns, piles of litter are becoming the norm. Many of us think it is because of corruption, emerging from tenderpreneurship, but it is because of the lack of technical skills among our political elites.

It is telling that not a single professional engineer has been appointed to our Cabinet since 1994. We need to invest in our infrastructure. We need to build sustainable cities and communities. The springing up of squatter camps and the rise of informal settlements is an issue that needs to be addressed.

We should bring private sector efficiency to give our people decent but sustainable human settlements. We need to cultivate responsible consumption and production. This new culture of conspicuous consumption that we see on social media needs to be curtailed. Our people must take more pride in what they know than in what car they drive or clothes they wear or the wine they drink.

We need to deal with the issue of climate change seriously. We need to ban the use of plastics. Rwanda is leading the way in this regard and we should follow. We need to take care of our oceans and our lands. Studies of the efficient use of life on land and underwater must become popular again.

To assure peace, we need strong partnerships, strong institutions to cultivate a culture of justice from preschool to the highest levels of academic achievement.

But we are lagging behind in the attainment of the SDGs. One reason is the Covid-19 pandemic which brought grief, death and illness to many and left immense destruction. Last year, it emerged that Covid-19 had led to the first rise in extreme poverty in a generation. The Sustainable Development Report 2022 concluded that the proportion of people in extreme poverty has substantially increased since 2019. This represents the first, and arguably most critical SDG.

The goals related to decent work and economic growth have also seen regression. Accordingly, the 10 countries ranked highest in the SDG Index are all in Europe; the bottom 10 are all in sub-Saharan Africa. Distressingly, no country in the world is on course to achieve the SDGs.

Given all these problems, what is to be done?

We need to invest in science, technology, and innovation as our weaponry to emerge from the crisis and economically recover. Creativity, innovation and the adoption and promotion of emerging technologies should take centre stage as societal problems have shifted in the wake of Covid-19.

We need to invest in infrastructure that is geared towards growth. Factories instead of nightclubs. Schools instead of golf clubs. Community centres instead of shebeens.

We need to establish a coherent and enabling policy framework, particularly in the realm of science, technology and innovation. We must actively invest in research and development and trigger and sustain business entrepreneurship.

We need to foster local, national and international collaborations and networks and ensure that Africa grows and participates in the global knowledge economy.

We need to ensure that there is a diversification of funding resources for research, development and infrastructure.

The time is now for African leaders to embrace technology and use the Fourth Industrial Revolution, creativity and innovation to drive the continent out of poverty and into a better future.

Given the state of the world today, the latent power of science and technology and those who wield it, I use UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ words as a resounding call to action: “The wellbeing of people around the world, the health of our planet, and the survival of future generations depend on our willingness to come together around a commitment to collective problem-solving and action. We don’t have a moment to lose”.

This requires leadership that is ethical, forward-looking, kind, and broadly educated. DM

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