Exploring Diversity -  Approaches To The Future
Diversity And Commonalities Of Our Expectations 
Contribution By Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP


 

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 tradition.

 

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 their parents.

 

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 remained unaffected.

 

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.