Cornerstone Staff Portraits 2018 426B. rudi buys 1 copy

Dr Rudi Buys

Three days after my daughter was born, our country entered a national State of Disaster.

A week later, the president announced a national lockdown to battle the spread of Covid-19. At a time when love and new life must be celebrated, it is also the time of a global pandemic when fear and panic threaten to engulf families, communities and nations.

To be born at this time represents more than a story of how her parents and family, flung between joy and anxiety, arrange her world to safeguard her first encounters of life.

It also represents a historical moment because she joins humanity during dramatic shifts in how people interact and arrange togetherness. It is a time of revisiting social questions that reflect on how we live, what we define as the truth, and how we make sense of being human.

This is “love in the time of corona”. It is love at the time of a global episode that makes it possible to see how the everyday lives of people and communities interrelate with the broader storyline of human history.

One way to make sense of this time and what shifts it may bring to how societies make sense of the world is to reflect on broad periods of human history – the broad “epochs” of the human condition. An epoch refers to a particular period in human history.

It is measured in terms of the broader set of ideas, values and themes of struggle that caused, and then defined the historical events taking place in a particular society, as much as in all societies together.

It is not the actual events that define an epoch, but what sense humanity made of its environment during and following a global episode that will represent different moment in how we make sense of who we are as humanity.

An epoch is often best defines by observing the opposite themes than the major definition one employs to define it.

Not only due to the countless wars that mark the history of the world of the 19th and 20th centuries, but also due to the struggles for freedom and independence of nations of the same historical period, the human condition of that broad time can be define as an ‘epoch of dominance’. At the turn of the 20th century the global movements of people from the South to the North, and the subsequent surge in protectionist policies of nations, arguably revealed a shift in making sense of being human as a matter of opposites, but rather a matter of being in-between and continuous change – an “epoch of migration”. Using this perspective, one may conclude that the corona pandemic therefore may well represent the advent of a new epoch in human history – an “epoch of fragility”.

The pandemic revealed the vulnerability of what it is to be human. No nation, no community and no home is safe, as is no economy, no political system and no social and societal structure.

However, that is not the defining moment of an epoch. It is the prevalent ideas, values and themes of struggle that emerge as the drivers of how a society in such a time makes sense of itself that defines an epoch.

What seems clear is that the themes that will determine what epoch will emerge, and what humanity every newborn of our nation will enter, relate to social distances and proximities – questions about the social borders and bridges that bind us or keep us apart.


  • Rudi Buys is the executive dean and dean of humanities of the private and non-profit higher education institution, Cornerstone Institute.
  • Originally published in the Cape Argus on 26 March 2020.