Picture: 123RF/DEJAN BOZIC
Picture: 123RF/DEJAN BOZIC

A new animal has raised its horn in the world of scenarios, alongside that of the black swan: the grey rhino.

Many crystal ball gazers and bone throwers have been debating whether the Covid-19 pandemic constitutes a black swan as defined by Nassim Nicolas Taleb, author of Black Swan, which he described as an improbable event which has a major effect.

Australian academic Glen McGillivray reflects the view that “an event such as Covid-19 is not all that rare. Indeed, history is replete with such events, there have been numerous warnings from many sources”.

This has compelled the Indlulamithi Scenario Project to grapple with the notion of grey rhinos, as described by Michele Wucker, author of a book by that name. The subtitle is indicative of what is meant by this term: How to recognise and act on the obvious dangers we ignore.

Given the emphasis on separating the certainties of what we know and predict from the uncertainties of what we don’t know, the Johari Window has also been a tool we are using to help us in the scenario process. Named after a combination of the first letters of the first names of the psychologists who devised this tool box in 1955, Joseph Luft  and Harrington Ingham, it earned notoriety when US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld made a mangled use of the term “unknown unknowns” in the context of the US-led invasion of Iraq.

The above diagram shows how the original Johari Window was envisaged, with the Indlulamithi Scenarios Project locating black swans in the “unknown unknowns” box. Writers have suggested that recent examples of black swan events include the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2001 and the great financial crisis of 2008/2009.

Grey rhinos can be comfortably placed in the “known unknowns” box of which climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic are cited as examples. Because identifying the actual black swans, by definition, is meant to be unimaginable we have agreed that the creative process of scenarios thinking should help push us into the realm of speculation. This will help us get beyond the prison of today and tomorrow and construct the possible futures SA could be going into over the next few decades.

To provide a starting point to the scenarios, we have identified six grey rhinos that we need to be aware. These are:

  • The focus on climate change coming back to the fore: While Covid-19 was occupying humanity’s attention there were critical advances on the question of reducing carbon emissions. This was seen, for example, during the virtual meeting of the UN General Assembly in September when China, the world’s biggest producer of greenhouse gases, said it will cut its carbon dioxide emissions to nearly zero by 2060. This will have several effects, including reducing the demand for coal while adding pressure on the US, which is now the biggest emitter in the world that does not have a carbon-neutral target. Our continent is seeing the effects of climate change in dramatic fashion: temperatures are increasing in Southern Africa faster than the worldwide average, while the World Food Programme’s 2016 report showed that the rate of crop production is below that of the global population growth rate.

  • Struggles around democracy and authoritarianism characterise most countries of the world today. Agency in the form of Black Lives Matter in the US, the democracy movement in Hong Kong and the anti-SARS protests in Nigeria are emblematic of inchoate movements challenging unaccommodating political systems and aspirations of vast swathes of society.

While there has been no letting up on protests in SA, with issues ranging from Covid-19-related corruption to the fightback against gender-based violence and femicide, we have yet to see the emergence of a national movement riding the tiger.

Two key layers of SA youth will be affecting the next two to three decades: the millennials, who in SA parlance would be the “born frees”, and Generation Z, the younger siblings of the millennials. Millennials can be seen as those knocking on the doors to be let into the institutions of power, while Gen Z wants to shake these edifices at their very foundations. The impact of the millennials on SA’s political economy can be seen as a grey rhino, while the impact Generation Z provides is a black swan.

  • AI and the power of cloud computing have been increasing connections among peoples around the world and within countries, while changing the way work, entertainment and politics is organised. However, some analysts suggest that there may be a pushback against the use of technology — a “tech-lash” — due to issues such as  cyber-risk and vulnerability to online crime, machines doing low-wage labour, privacy abuse issues, and the proliferation of fake news.

Ninety percent of South Africans already use mobile phones with almost 70% on smartphones. Internet penetration has risen from 46% in 2015 to 63.8% in 2018, projected to grow to 80.8% in 2023. SA has over 8-million Twitter users. The impact of these is still a grey rhino, with especially political parties seeming to be clueless on how to mainstream such developments.  

  • Demographics and the movement of populations will exert a huge influence over future scenarios. It is estimated that by 2035 Nigeria’s population would be about 295-million (now 206-million), while SA’s would be 67.3-million. By 2100 Nigeria at 733-million people would be the third most populous country in the world after India and China. It will be joined by the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Tanzania and Egypt in the top 10 most populous countries. SA is an attractive destination for migrants seeking better economic opportunities. According 2019 data (from the UN’s department of economic and social affairs) on international migrants as a share of total populations, SA’s share (7.2% of total population) far exceeds the global rates (3.5%) and Sub-Saharan Africa rates (2.2%). Grey rhinos that we have yet to come to terms with?
  • The future of the global economy pre-Covid-19 was already being debated inspired by growing concern about the effects of climate change, rising inequality, as well as threats to the multilateral systems of governance and trade, especially under the leadership of right-wing populists.

At the same time many have been debating whether the events of 2020 will leave us with a less globalised world. The current debates are not just about globalisation versus protectionism — it includes debates about post-Covid localisation versus regionalisation, and new global decoupling versus recoupling. US President Trump for example had been calling for “decoupling” of the US economy from China, a policy which may continue under the new US administration. At the same time countries such as India and Japan are seeking to reduce their dependence on China.

In SA we are going through a similar version of the ideological battles about the future economy, most remarkably within the ANC alliance. The debate about the economic strategy document released by the National Treasury in August 2019, the president’s October 15 unveiling of the Economic Recovery and Reconstruction Plan versus the calls for radical economic transformation, continue to engender intense debates about the economic strategies we should be embracing.

  • The economic impact of the pandemic could be a grey rhino but may have some unpredictable and improbable black swan events. Calculations indicate that just the US economy will take a $16-trillion hit over the next decade, when loss in productivity, skills, health expenditure and so forth are factored in. Similarly, Cambridge University academics suggest that the global economy could be affected by up to $82-trillion.

The October 2020 World Bank report expects sub-Saharan African economic activity to decline by 3.3% in 2020, confirming the region’s first recession in 25 years, costing it at least $115bn in output losses this year, pushing 40-million people into extreme poverty and erasing at least five years of progress in fighting poverty.

In SA, the National Treasury’s projections indicate that the post-pandemic tax recovery path might only recover after eight years. On top of that, corruption affects tax morality and reduces compliance — real problems as we see the wave of new forms of malfeasance under Ramaphosa’s watch.

The Covid-19 pandemic has acted as a magnifying class highlighting the grey rhinos — forces and developments which were prevalent before the outbreak, but which were being ignored at our collective peril. But the pandemic also brings up a range of new uncertainties, such as the nature of government expenditure, levels of debt, possibilities of growth, human solidarity and even whether we will see a return to multilateral responses to global challenges or the continuing raising of the drawbridges behind protectionism and narrow nationalism.

What is required urgently is for creative discussions on how these scenarios will play out so that policy formulators and decisionmakers can start preparing for the various directions the future could go in.

• Omar serves on the executive committee of the Indlulamithi Scenarios Project.

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