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Social harmony through national effort is the way to forge a nation this Heritage Month

By Fatima Chohan

24 September 2022

At a recent seminar held by the South African Human Rights Commission on the topic of “The Erosion of Rule of Law”, the notion of a South African nation was disputed by the presenter who argued that we are not now, nor have we ever been, anything akin to a nation.

We are simply too diverse, too divided by race, ethnicity, class and belief systems. We hold no shared values and can display no sense of a shared and binding ethos. There is no South African dream or singular social mores. That makes it difficult to find consensus on any matter at all, let alone the upholding of the Rule of Law so essential to any constitutional democracy.

Other nations coalesce around myths and values. The Americans share a singular faith in what is called the “American Dream”, the simple idea that anyone can achieve material success as long as they strive to do so. Notwithstanding the fact that there are many poor people in the US, still this dream binds Americans.

The British owe their allegiance to “King and country” and admire a simple pragmatism and stoic attitude captured in the slogan “keep calm and carry on”. Their adoration of tradition and pomp has been on full display for almost two weeks after the recent death of their queen. Together 700 000 people queued for up to seven hours to spend a fleeting moment before their deceased queen, not just to salute their queen, but as one BBC reporter put it, “they queued as strangers, to be there together”.

This is what binds them as a nation, in all of their hues and religious appendages. I watched fascinated as thousands filed past the queen’s coffin as it lay in the Hall of Westminster, while some curtsied, I saw an African Brit saluting, I watched Chinese Brits bowing low, and I saw Hindu Brits bringing their pressed palms to their foreheads in salutation. They came to pay their respects to the queen of them all.

September 24 is South African Heritage Day. At some schools our learners participate in a celebration of heritage by dressing in their cultural dress. This is a wonderful way to foster understanding of the other. But what of those schools that are not diverse? How is this diversity taught? Our Constitution proclaims that we are a country united in its diversity. Yet our lived experience is something else.

We are, of course, a nation born out of division of the very worst kind and some six generations of us have lived through a dehumanising system that excelled in violence. It is no wonder that in the last 28 years of our democratic experience division and violence have been our singular shadow, whether it was the massacres in Boipatong and other places around the country which threatened to derail the multi-party negotiation process in early 90s, or the overwhelmingly violent nature of crime that we inherited in the new dispensation.

Whether it is the violence we perpetrate within our families, our road rage or whether it is the violence that we speak and spread on social media, We Do Violence. So, is this our creed, our nature, the sum total of what we are as a nation?

In the wake of the rioting in July 2021 that was seemingly instigated by some as yet unidentified individuals, the question has to be asked: Would the masses have so willingly responded to the whims of some intent on doing harm on such a devastating scale, if that scene had played out in downtown Birmingham or Chicago or, for that matter, in Blantyre or Gaborone? The answer to these questions would obviously have to factor in the level of discontent and lack of ownership of the status quo, but disharmony, racial divides and anti-social attitudes are also factors.

One of the most powerful elements that define human attitudes and behaviours are the values that we adopt. This statement does need unpacking, because it assumes fundamentally that people choose their values. There is an assumption that in doing so people are reflective, deliberate and make informed choices. This is not always the case. Many of us imbibe the values we encounter in our families and our environs without critically reflecting on these. Often the values that we are brought up with are good values bound to religious, cultural or political strictures. When learnt values are steeped in racism, chauvinism and violence, though, they are equally imbibed through osmosis. Madiba reminded us that hatred is a learnt value, and that if people can learn to hate, they can learn to love.

The seemingly ongoing race-related strife occurring in our schools and universities is evidence of a new generation of racists who, though never experiencing first-hand the crime that was apartheid, have nonetheless imbibed its central teachings. Perhaps some of these young people have reflected on the source, content and reinforcement of their racist attitudes, but many I suppose have acquired their values through osmosis, having experienced diversity only through peepholes in their isolation cells. Many who join in the racist attacks against foreign nationals are no less steeped in hatred arising out of chauvinism.

Blame for this phenomenon may be placed at various doors – our racist past, parents, friends, schools, teachers, the rise of right-wing political movements … the list goes on.

At what point do I take responsibility? That may sound like a strange question to pose, but perhaps we should reflect upon this a little… If we are ever going to develop into a nation, then there must come a time when we own what is ours. The good and the bad.

It is wonderful when our athletes win gold medals and the Springboks hold aloft the Webb Ellis Cup. We must equally, all of us, aim to do better when we don’t win, when we fall short and when things go horribly wrong. Castigating, punishing and shunning is not going to turn things around for these young people. It is not going to teach them anything different at all. We need more than that. We need these young people to be mentored, to be transformed into champions of non-racialism, so that we do not further entrench it, so that we do not nurture another generation of racists and people who peddle hatred. We need to be deliberate and mindful in our quest to unite as a single harmonious nation, and we must begin with taking this responsibility seriously, each of us, and all of us.

The Social Harmony National Effort (SHiNE) is an initiative of South Africa’s Human Rights Commission, which is aimed at enabling each of us to do just that – to be crafters of our own destiny through a process of national action. SHiNE is centrally concerned with developing a culture of dialogue while placing the leadership of positive change firmly in each of our hands. Self- reflection is emphasised, positive dialogues in the home and in the workplace will be encouraged.

The South African Human Rights Commission, under the banner of SHiNE throughout the year in 2023, will urge South Africans to act in small ways to bring about meaningful change. This journey will be our act of being together as strangers, it may require us to confront some difficult truths, and will mean that we should appreciate the need to positively change something of ourselves. This may not be easy – indeed, nothing worthwhile does come easy.

Together we can in small and gentle ways begin healing and ultimately, together, become the living embodiment of Ubuntu (humanity).Through our national efforts, we will craft for ourselves a national identity, tying ourselves to that ultimate truth that we are each other’s keeper and lifeline. We shall ultimately become known as a place of inclusion and celebrating the beautiful array of diversity that defines all of humanity. As our beloved Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu taught us, we are best placed to solve our challenges if we act in solidarity and in compassion.

The Social Harmony through National Effort is to be launched on September 27, 2022 at the Freedom Park Heritage Site and Museum, and we begin our own national journey by encouraging ourselves to acknowledge each other through the simple act of greeting. A cheery greeting is a powerful instrument through which strangers can acknowledge and bind together.

This National Effort asks each of us to find our humanity within and then put it on display. In a world wrecked by wars, racism and exclusion, we can be the beacon that guides our species to peace and harmony. Let us all shine, South Africa!

The proceedings will be live-streamed on the SAHRC website: www.sahrc.org.za, YouTube: SAHRC1, Facebook: SA Human Rights Commission

* Fatima Chohan is the Deputy Chairperson of the South African Human Rights Commission. She currently heads up the Equality Focus Area and is responsible for the Social Harmony National Effort.

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