100 years ago, a new decade began. This period would become known as the Jazz Age, the era of the Great Depression, and most commonly – The Roaring Twenties. This was an age of intense technological advancement as inventions such as the Ford Model T, penicillin, coal power for electricity, and the proliferation of entertainment entered into mainstream culture. A typical impression of the 1920s would likely include something along the lines of one of Jay Gatsby’s parties; a wild configuration of flapper dresses, copious amounts of alcohol, and a reckless approach to living life – all of which would end abruptly with the economic crash and the setting in of what we now call The Great Depression.
At midnight on 1 January we entered an entirely new decade – 2020. In the 100 years since the Roaring Twenties, there have been remarkable technological and societal strides made, the world is indeed a very different place than the one that existed in 1920. However, there are also startling similarities between the worlds of 1920 and 2020; problems which citizens of 1920 most probably expected to have been dealt with by the time 2020 came around.
A surge in the economy following the end of the Great War meant that American society was devoured by a culture of mass consumerism. Liberalism thrived in a post-war world order which favoured free market economies and national self-determination. The Roaring Twenties were marked by a period of economic prosperity and dynamic developments in both technology and the arts. The spirit of the Roaring Twenties was fuelled by the relief felt by most people at the end of the First World War, jazz music and dancing began to proliferate and an air of modernity prevailed as new technologies were constantly being developed.
100 years doesn’t seem that long ago in the grand scheme of how long the world has been around. We are used to living in an age of information being readily available, cars are commonplace, and it is hard to imagine a world where radio and movies are new. The 1920s version of rapid technological development meant that automobiles became a part of everyday life and signalled a new age of modernity dawning. Ford and its competitors began to roll cars out of factories at lightning speed and car manufacturing factories began to open around the world. Nowadays car dealerships can be found practically on every corner of a city and the range of options available to people buying cars is innumerable. We have progressed to a point where cars are not just commonplace but are being used in ways that Henry Ford would never have imagined in 1920. By simply tapping away on an app, a person can have a car in front of them in a few minutes which has the express purpose of transporting you from one place to another. Cars come in every shape, size, and colour imaginable and can be fuelled by petrol, diesel, or even batteries.
“At midnight on 1 January we entered an entirely new decade – 2020”
In 1927 the first solo non-stop flight over the Atlantic was undertaken by Charles Lindbergh, it took him 33.5 hours. Since then the commercial use of aircrafts as a means of long-distance transport has become widespread. At the time, this achievement was so impressive that no one could have imagined any more impactful developments in the realm of transport. 100 years later and NASA is set to launch a mission to Mars to study the inhabitability of the planet in preparation for the possibility for future human missions and even the seemingly insane possibility of people being sent to Mars to live there.
Radio became the first mass broadcasting system in the 1920s and in 1925 a great advancement in sound recording produced electrical recording and gramophone records. Since then we have progressed through the age of radio, from cassettes to CDs, and now into an age where music is available digitally to download or stream; allowing us access to a limitless catalogue of music within seconds.
The revolutionary introduction of radio fed into the culture of mass consumerism by providing a platform for mass marketing, but the potential for radio advertisement in 1920 is dwarfed by 2020’s potential for marketing via social media; and what was previously seen as “the next big thing” in advertising is now seen as archaic in comparison to the advertising methods we are used to. Crowds flocked to palatial movie cinemas to watch the latest and most exciting form of entertainment – sound films. The first motion picture to feature lip-synchronised singing and speech was 1927’s The Jazz Singer, with a budget of $422 000 the film managed to gross $2.6 million worldwide due to the excitement over this new concept of a film with sound. By comparison, the budget for 2020’s twenty-fifth instalment in the James Bond series No Time To Die is $250 million, almost 600 times more than the barely half a million dollar budget used for the world’s first sound film.
The most stand out development of the 1920s in the biomedical field was the discovery of penicillin which has since been used to treat a number of bacterial infections. The widespread production and use of penicillin revolutionised the treatment of wounds which had become infected with strep or sepsis, as well as the treatment of venereal diseases.
2020 shows incredible promise for medical innovations including a handheld ultrasound device which connects to an app on a doctors cell phone, an artificial intelligence system which outperforms human doctors in the diagnosis of lung cancer, and the inclusion of medical centres in large retail chains (eg. Walmart) in order to provide affordable primary health care (including services such as vision tests, dental care, lab tests, x-rays, and counselling services) to people without health insurance.
“Maybe one day people will read about the 2020s and realise that this was the decade where everything changed, for the better.”
Technological advancement in the 1920s is considered to be some of the most rapid development in history due to the sheer number of strides that were made in a relatively short period of time. In this way 2020 seems similar to the Roaring Twenties, as we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution and anticipate the pace of development to increase. Many countries in the world are now enjoying the same economic prosperity that the US could boast in the 1920s, while others live in the destitution and poverty. These harsh contrasts between the rich and poor existed in 1920 and continue to exist today, on a greater scale than they did back then. As technology advances further ahead, those with fewer opportunities for development will simply be left further and further behind.
Technologically, the 1920s were much dimmer than the 2020s; in all senses of the word. Electricity was far scarcer in the 1920s than it is today. On 1 March 1923, South Africa’s public electric utility was established. Eskom is the largest of South Africa’s state-owned enterprises and its first power stations were completed in mid-1928 in Durban and Cape Town. In 2020, Eskom runs 18 coal-fired power plants and generates about 95% of all electricity used in South Africa. When the utility was established there were high hopes with regards to Eskom’s success, citizens were optimistic about the future of South African electricity; 100 years later and it is safe to say that we are less than optimistic about that same topic. Where 1920s South Africans looked to Eskom as a representation of all the wonderful possibilities which exist with the availability of electricity, 2020s South Africans view Eskom with scepticism and even disdain. As we forge into the 2020s, perhaps it will come time to leave the coal-fired ways of Eskom behind and fearlessly pursue alternate sources of electricity.
The 1920s was the era of the “New Girl” as female fashions turned toward looser clothing with lower waistlines and shorter lengths, these new trends represented a social statement on the part young women as they began to break away from the rigid Victorian way of life. Women tended towards a chin-length bob in stark contrast to the long locks and intricate hairstyles of the previous decades and the use of cosmetics became extremely popular.
We’ve come a long way from the 1920s in the sense that although there are overarching trends in beauty and fashions, we are not expected to adhere to them and we are not as restricted in the ways we express ourselves through our clothing.
The greatest development for women of the 1920s was not their clothing nor their hairstyles, but actually their newly-awarded right to vote. The spirit of women’s suffrage won women the right to participate in their country’s democracy; and it is that same spirit that lives on in the women going into 2020 who not only participate in but help shape the world we live in. That same spirit lives on in the #MeToo’s and the #AmINext movements which refuse to take the poor treatment of women lightly, and hopefully in 100 years people will read their history books and see that it is that same spirit than won in the 2020’s – the New Roaring Twenties – and ultimately made the world a safer place to be a woman.
The political landscape of South Africa in the 1920s was not too different from that of the 1940s or 1960s. The 1920s in South Africa saw a steep progression towards the kind of marginalisation and prejudices which would be exercised against non-white South Africans in the coming decades. South Africa’s Roaring Twenties were steered by the leadership of prime minister, J.B.M Hertzog, who used his position in government to secure the privileged position of the white labour force.
The 1920s would also see the introduction of legislation which would effectively restrict and reduce the voting rights of Africans, as well as replacing Dutch with Afrikaans as an official language. The introduction of these further forms of oppression were not ignored or taken lightly and this decade also saw movements of resistance beginning to form against the imposition of these oppressive policies.
The deteriorating work conditions produced an environment where protest could thrive. By 1928 the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU) boasted membership of 150 000 to 200 000 Africans, 15 000 coloureds, and 250 whites; unified in the call to end discrimination. The organisation collapsed in the final stretch of the 1920s but laid integral foundations for the countless freedom fighters and resistance movements still to come. Prime minister Hertzog would lead the National Party into another victory in the 1929 elections, thus beginning another decade of oppression for non-white South Africans.
“The Roaring Twenties were marked by a period of economic prosperity and dynamic developments”
Our own university has its part to play in the past century of history and happenings. In 1925, the University of Pretoria started the tradition of Jool in South Africa. Students took to the streets in a procession parade and started a longheld tradition of building and parading floats, seeking donations from members of the public for their chosen charities.
There have been some changes to the way we do Jool/RAG in the past 100 years, the streets are no longer taken over by floats but the spirit of RAG is still as strong as it was in 1925. Students still band together in preparation for one of the first big events of the university calendar, hand-making products to be sold so that the proceeds can be donated to various charities. RAG of Hope Day captures the essence of UP’s generous and charitable focus by getting students involved in making a difference in the community around them. 2020s Rag of Hope Day will be held on the 8 February, so make sure you get all the relevant information and take part in this long-standing tradition.
2020 bringing hope
It’s been 100 years since the start of the Roaring Twenties. In 100 years, the world has advanced in terms of automobiles, aviation, and, more. Medicine has progressed to a point that people are living longer than they did in the 1920s. We can access movies, music, and encyclopaedia’s worth of knowledge through devices which hadn’t even been dreamt about in the 1920s. There are electric cars, frequent trans-Atlantic travel, and even space travel. Where it previously came as a shock to see a woman with short hair or wearing a pair of pants, 2020 is a whole different world for women. Women can go to school, study whatever they want at university, and pursue any career they want. There are little girls who dream of being doctors, and lawyers, and presidents; and in 2020 none of those dreams seem out of reach.
As we enter the New Roaring Twenties we bring with us centuries old traditions, such as the enduring blight of racial discrimination. Gender inequality persists to this day. We may have advanced in some areas, but it seems that 2020 will bare many of the same societal traits that 1920 did; we have come a long way in 100 years but for most people we still haven’t come far enough. However, there is one element which has not been accounted for. The 1920s happened to a very different generation than the 2020s will. The 1920s featured the so-called “lost generation”, a collection of young people without purpose or direction, disillusioned by the horrors of the First World War. 2020 in South Africa will be driven by the so-called “born frees”, a collection of young people born into a democratic South Africa, determined to right the wrongs of the past and steer the future into brighter days. 2020 in South Africa will be determined by the energy of a generation that fuelled the #FeesMustFall and #AmINext movements, and globally is represented by the cohorts of school-aged children skipping school in the interests of acting against climate change. Maybe the 2020s will be a new Roaring Twenties; Roaring with activism and determination to beat the status quo. Maybe one day people will read about the 2020s and realise that this was the decade where everything changed, for the better.
Illustration: Giovanna Janos