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Picture: 123RF
Picture: 123RF

In the 2000s planners worldwide were trying to make sense of the effects of several forces pounding nations and the globe. Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity became the favoured words to describe the general conditions humanity found itself in.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s opening of parliament speech, the state of the nation address (Sona), was an expression of another term creeping into public policy debates — polycrisis. Thomas Homer-Dixon of Canada’s Cascade Institute explains that many of the world’s critical systems are tipping into negative territory simultaneously, requiring us at national and global levels to look at interactions among these systems.

The Global Risks Report 2023 of the World Economic Forum (WEF) described the term as “a cluster of related global risks with compounding effects, such that the overall impact exceeds the sum of each part”.

Homer-Dixon’s colleague, Michael Lawrence, suggests that a “polycrisis requires strategies that are multidisciplinary, systemic and cross-sectoral, as efforts to reduce one problem can easily worsen others”. 

Adam Tooze of Columbia University has helped soothe our collective nerves by suggesting that “what the polycrisis concept says is ‘relax, this is actually the condition of our current moment’.

Viewing our problems through the polycrisis lens forces us to dissect the various issues being faced, appreciate the connections between and within the different elements, often requiring responses at local, national and global levels simultaneously, as well as considering immediate and long-term strategies. 

This requires a shift in mindset of the Tintswalos Ramaphosa referred to in the Sona in describing the generation that has benefited from a post-1994 democratic SA.

Foremost among the risks to humanity is that of rising inequality, climate change and the just transition to a low-carbon future. The WEF 2023 report indicated respondents identified the cost-of-living crisis as the most severe immediate risk, and the failure to mitigate the climate crisis as the biggest risk 10 years in the future.

Ramaphosa captured the implications for SA in one sentence, saying, “We are implementing a just energy transition, not only to reduce carbon emissions and fight climate change but to create growth and jobs for our own people.” This is probably at the core of the issues that will shape Tintswalo’s generation.

The geopolitical tension arising from the rivalries among global powers serves as a reminder of the fragile state of our polycrisis world. In his speech Ramaphosa emphasised SA’s idealistic approach by saying that “we are guided by the fundamental principle of human rights and freedom” and “we engage in peace efforts because we believe that even the most intractable conflicts can be brought to an end through negotiations”, a proud tradition that Tintswalo will have to bear. 

Another source of existential threats to humanity arises from technological advancements that have made possible ever more intelligent weapons systems as well as incredible breakthroughs in medicine and biotechnology. Our Tintswalos have grown up in a world with the latest technology at their fingertips, where — due to the ubiquitous effect of artificial intelligence — they have to navigate between fake news and deep fakes before they can even access the truth about anything.

Tintswalo will also have to wrestle with growing polarisation along ideological lines as we see the consolidation and ascendancy of right-wing, racist forces in many democracies worldwide. They will have to do so when state capacity is eroded, and the possibility of a failed or fragile state looms large.

Despite the negative image of the public service after years of state capture, the polycrisis will require the Tintswalos to reshape the government so it is truly responsive to citizens’ needs.

In his conclusion, Ramaphosa said: “As we continue the journey together, we are inspired by democracy’s children, by their energy, by their creativity and by their enthusiasm”. Here’s to the rise of the Tintswalos! 

• Abba Omar is director of operations at the Mapungubwe Institute.

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