SOUTH AFRICA AND THE WORLD DAY FOR CULTURAL DIVERSITY FOR DIALOGUE AND DEVELOPMENT
Adv Nikki de Havilland, Irene Saunders
The United Nations’ World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development on 21st May was instituted to provide “an opportunity to deepen our understanding of the values of cultural diversity” and to encourage us to learn to ‘live together better”. One of the main goals of the new South Africa is to promote respect for human dignity and cultural and language diversity. The Constitution provides mechanisms to create harmonious relationships by respecting cultural and language diversity in a society with an extremely racially divided history. It promotes this goal by enshrining the right to practise one’s culture and one’s religion, to use one’s language and ‘to form, join and maintain cultural, religious and linguistic associations and other organs of civil society’.
These rights are reinforced by the constitutional provision for the establishment of a Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (the CRL Commission). The CRL Commission is mandated to promote respect for the rights of cultural, religious and linguistic communities and to promote peace, tolerance and unity amongst those communities. It is also supposed to educate South Africans about the diversity of our cultural, religious and linguistic communities in order to assist with the “building of a truly united South African nation...”. In addition, the Commission is mandated to “… lobby, advise and report on any issue concerning the rights of cultural, religious and linguistic communities”.
Language rights are enshrined in the founding principles of the Constitution and are further reinforced by a constitutional requirement for the establishment of a Pan South African Language Board (PANSALB), whose mandate is to develop the eleven official languages and promote multilingualism in South Africa.
How successful have the CRL Commission and PANSALB been in carrying out their mandate of fostering mutual respect for and tolerance of our ‘rainbow nation’ of diverse cultures and languages?
Recent incidences of racial and cultural tension and widespread dissatisfaction with the implementation of the Constitution’s language provisions indicate that both organisations have failed in their appointed tasks.
This has been particularly evident in the current AfriForum hate speech lawsuit against ANCYL President Julius Malema regarding the “Shoot the Boer” song. Although judgment is still to be delivered, the testimonies in court and opinions expressed in the public discourse have exposed a fundamental lack of understanding of cultural differences.
Simply put, South Africans do not know enough about each other’s cultures to be able to find compromises when these cultural differences cause tension or threaten to undermine inter-community relations. Lack of cultural understanding, tolerance and sensitivity also fuelled Mr Malema’s recent public claims that all whites are criminals and should be treated as such, and the popular Afrikaans singer, Steve Hofmeyr’s, latest derogatory lyric penned in response to the "Shoot the Boer" song.
Clearly, the CRL Commission has not been carrying out its function to “facilitate the resolution of friction between and within cultural, religious and linguistic communities.” Similarily, the PASALB has failed in its constitutionally mandated tasks of promoting the equitqble use of our national languages and of developing our indigenous langauges.
The CRL Commission has been conspicuously ineffective in resolving the recent episodes of friction between cultural communities, probably because hardly anyone knows of its existence. It has failed to educate the public about its powers and functions and has not carried out its mandate to “educate, lobby, advise and report on any issue concerning the rights of cultural, religious and linguistic communities”. Its website is virtually dormant and important categories concerning the procedure to lodge complaints, their publications, programmes and activities are inactive.
PANSALB appears to be even more dysfunctional. According to recent reports, the Board’s funds have been denuded by legal costs; its Chief Executive, Mntombenhle Nkosi, has been suspended since February 2009 and all projects and plans have been shelved until the next financial year due to ‘budget limitations’.
The 2007 report of Prof Kader Asmal’s Ad Hoc Committee to review Chapter 9 Institutions made some disturbing findings regarding the effectiveness of the CRL Commission. Not only had it “not settled yet on what exactly constituted a cultural, religious or linguistic community - despite the fact that it was the main task of the Commission to promote the rights of such communities”, but it also did not clearly understand its powers in terms of the Constitution and the Act. Furthermore, the Ad Hoc Committee found that the small number of complaints received by the Commission either indicated “that the public was unaware of the work done by the Commission, or that it has no confidence that the Commission will be able to address its concerns”. In its recommendations the Committee proposed incorporating PANSALB into the Commission. The new Commission was to be given a broadened amalgamated mandate and its independence was to be guaranteed by allowing the National Assembly to nominate Commissioners. To date, nearly four years after publication, the entire Ad Hoc committee report continues to be ignored.
The blame for the ineffectiveness of these two organisations cannot be placed only on the two institutions. Government and Parliament must also be held accountable because the Commission has to report to the National Assembly and the President has the power to appoint the Chairman and the Commissioners, and to remove them on grounds of misconduct, incapacity or incompetence, with the support of a majority of National Assembly members. The failure to take any steps to improve their effectiveness seems to indicate a serious lack of political commitment to the goal of promoting respect for cultural and language diversity and for maintaining harmonious relationships between our different communities.
In light of the increased levels of cultural and linguistic friction and intolerance it is hoped that Government will seriously consider implementation of the Ad Hoc Committee’s recommendations and that Parliament will properly exercise its clearly defined oversight role. Only then will we be able to use our rich heritage of cultural and language diversity to promote dialogue and development - rather than being a factor for disunity and division.