KfW BERLIN Future Forum, Facilitated Working Group (16:15)
13 November 2011
The issue of diversity is the most complex
issue of our times. Its complexity does not lie in the facts of
the matter, which are often simple and based on observation, but
rather on the philosophical, political and ideological
perspective employed to read and deal with those facts.
The facts of the matter are simple. People
have different colour skins and physiological traits. They tend
to aggregate around different sets of beliefs which include, but
are not limited to, different religions. And they tend to conduct their lives according
to patterns, values, motivations and interests which are
different, and which are referred to as culture or customs.
The fundamental principle of our constitutions
and societal organisation is that all people should be treated
equally by government and be equal under the law, irrespective
of any such differences. This is a political and legal axiom.
However, treating people equally does not mean that they are not
different. How does the law recognise these differences, without
departing from the principle of equal legal treatment?
The usual, conventional answer is that of
recognising areas of autonomy, freedom or self-determination in
which people can do as they wish either as individuals or
members of a group, as is the case with freedom of religion,
culture, customs and association. However, this framework has
now come into conflict with the aspirations of people to shape
the whole of society according to their own values.
The backdrop to this argument is that
freedom-based societies are in themselves a reflection of
certain values, and the needs, wants and aspirations of certain
people, and therefore they are not neutral in respect of the
various and diverse ways of life, culture and traditions of
different people. Differently put, Islamic or African people
would wish to shape Islamic and African societies, rather than
merely having space within the parameters of a prevailing
Western culture to live an Islamic or African life in respect of
matters which remain beyond the application of laws.
This is a difficult issue which brings to bear
centuries of philosophical development related to the notion of
civilisation which was once at the core of the foreign policies
of all great empires and which has now been discarded. From the
Roman to the British Empire, conquest and subjugation was
motivated by the purported need of bringing civilisation to
people of lesser development and purportedly lesser culture and
The age of cultural relativism put a halt to
this philosophy, but only up to a point. Often, beneath cultural
relativism, lies a more pernicious form of paternalism and
possible discrimination. Cultures are respected as suitable to
certain people only, even though those who respect them would
never wish to find themselves in such conditions.
I have met people who come to Africa espousing
the protection of the rural ways of life of people who have no
electricity or running water, and yet they could not see
themselves spending a day of their lives under such conditions.
The same is true in respect of matters which
affect human rights protection. It is difficult to accept that, in
the name of protecting their culture and traditions, people may
enjoy a lesser measure of human rights protection.
One of the most important human rights, which
is not often sufficiently emphasised, is the right to receive an
education and be freed from the chains of ignorance,
obscurantism and backwardness. This means offering people the effective and
real opportunity of becoming different from what they are, and
departing not only from their own ways but also from the ways of
In South Africa we have dealt with a myriad of
such situations, as, in an effective albeit not declared manner,
our Government went about changing the way people are.
Relationships between spouses, parents and children, teachers
and learners, and employers and employees have been changed by
means of both legislation and government-driven education, even
though they were deeply rooted in our African culture and
traditions. So deep has this process of transformation gone,
that even matters as personal as sexual conduct have not
The management of diversity is never based
exclusively on cultural relativism. We must accept this even
though it may sound politically incorrect. The management of
cultural diversity still underpins a project of elevating
people, transforming their culture and providing them with ever
greater measures of enlightenment.
This project aims to bring within the
mainstream of humanity those who have excluded themselves from
it, because of their culture or their social and economic
underdevelopment. Educational and intellectual development go
hand in hand with economic development, and one could not have
economic development where ignorance and backwardness prevail.
This is the reality.
This is not that dissimilar from the ancient
project of spreading civilisation. Where the emphasis needs to
be placed is in respect of modalities, which must now be rooted
in the full measure of human rights' protection. Human rights
have become the shared platform on which mankind can forge a
common future and find one another, beyond all that sets people
apart and makes them different.
Contact: Ms Liezl van der Merwe, 082 729 2510.