South Africans should seek to embrace and enhance diversity rather than see it as something that should be "managed', according to former Education Minister Professor Kader Asmal.
Asmal was addressing a group of mostly academics and students at the launch of an Intercultural and Diversity Studies of Southern Africa unit based at the University of Cape Town.
Professor Asmal was speaking in his capacity as president of the Inter-governmental Committee on the Convention on Cultural Diversity, a project of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.
The UNESCO general conference in October passed the convention, which Professor Asmal helped to draft, by 148 votes to two. The United States and Israel voted against it.
One of the objectives of the convention was to give recognition to the distinct nature of goods and services as "vehicles of identity', the professor said, adding that the US and its ally Israel opposed this out of concerns this might compromise the commerciality of certain goods and services in terms of World Trade Organisation rules.
Another key objective of the convention was to "reaffirm the importance of the link between culture and development for all countries', particularly developing countries, Professor Asmal said.
Dismissing the concept of race as "a social condition', the professor said "we are all multiple bearers of identity with multiple distinctiveness'.
It is this multiplicity of identity that gives cause for a celebration of an interesting and cosmopolitan society enriched by a sharing of ideas that is facilitated by integration.
As such, diversity - in terms of language, religion and culture, among others - " is a recognition of the distinctiveness of people' and an appreciation of this was a basis for unity and strength, the professor said.
He quoted the motto on South Africa?s coat of arms, which is taken from the Khoisan language of the ancient /Xam people of southern Africa: "!ke e: /xarra //ke' which means "diverse people unite'.
Moving on to the question of value systems, the professor said it did not seem as if South Africans had developed the vast potential of the notion of ubuntu ("humanity', or perhaps more correctly translated as "humanness') sufficiently.
"Have we done enough in 11 years to promote the value systems that should define the unique identity of South Africans?' Professor Asmal asked.
A key South African value was also the notion of solidarity, as an instrument, for example, to wage a struggle for liberation. With its colourful "mosaic of traditions', the "political and philosophical basis of social cohesion in South Africa must be all-embracing'. Nonetheless, the question of social cohesion was difficult and a complex terrain.
Professor Asmal lamented the current crisis around what was often and perhaps erroneously called "multiculturalism' in Europe, a continent which was undergoing intense soul-searching on the question of identity partly as a result of the way society was fracturing in the wake of entrenched class structures and more especially the phenomenon of extreme Islamist-inspired terrorism, which was possibly itself rooted in political crisis.
An irony here is the way the fundamentalist element of extremist Islamism is beginning to infect the ideologies of those who have sought to build tolerant societies and is in turn creating a counter-religious, atavistic fervour.
Distinctiveness in Europe was now becoming an occasion for debate because it was seen to be destroying "the idea of a collective identity', Professor Asmal said.
While South Africa?s constitution guaranteed everybody the right to be different, and protects people from discrimination against these differences, diversity "must not be allowed to develop into a form of privilege', the professor warned.
At the same time, he emphasized that, in his opinion, extreme poverty was a violation of human rights, especially in the way this denied dignity.
Freedom, equality and social justice - these were equivalent, he said, to the fundamental right to dignity that all humans should enjoy.
He added that South Africa?s equality legislation progressively compelled institutions and bodies to actively combat discrimination.
The professor also addressed the question of language as this had been used in South Africa?s apartheid era as "an instrument of separation'.
This was perhaps a key element that might point the way forward in terms of social cohesion: a common, mutual understanding of a variety of languages was virtually equivalent to a single language, which was itself a powerful basis for cohesion and unity, he said.
By Shaun Benton - BuaNews