It is a pleasure for me to address this inaugural conference of the Centre for Unity in Diversity.
The Centre’s goal is to promote the vision of unity in diversity that is articulated in the preamble to the Constitution. The time for such a Centre is ripe - because the concept of South Africa as a multicultural country in which all our communities enjoy equal respect and dignity is under growing pressure.
The main global threat to peace during the 21st century no longer comes from conflict between countries but rather from the inability of states to manage relationships between ethnic, cultural and religious communities within their own borders.
As I pointed out at our annual conference in February, the United Nations Development Programme has identified cultural liberty as a vital part of human development. If handled well, it can lead to greater cultural diversity and enrich people’s lives. However, if it is mismanaged it can “quickly become one of the greatest sources of instability within states and between them”. The answer is to “respect diversity and build unity through common bonds of humanity”.
These questions are of particular significance to South Africa with its complex multiracial and multicultural population.
When we were wrestling with the need to extend full political rights to all South Africans during the 1980s one central concern was that white domination might be replaced with black domination.
However, by the time that I became leader of the National Party in February, 1989, we had accepted that all South Africans should enjoy full and equal political rights - but on a basis that would avoid new forms of racial domination or oppression. Indeed, in my first speech that I made after my election as party leader I said that:
“Our goal is a New South Africa;
A totally changed South Africa;
A South Africa which has rid itself of the antagonisms of the past” and most crucially
“A South Africa free of domination or oppression in any form…”
We realised that a society free from oppression could be achieved only by negotiating a strong constitution that would protect the individual and communal rights of all our people. The subsequent negotiations gave extensive attention to cultural and language rights and to the prohibition of unfair discrimination on a number of grounds - including race, colour, language or culture. It called on South Africans to heal the divisions of the past and to strive for unity within our diversity. This is what the FW de Klerk Foundation wants to help achieve through its new Centre for Unity in Diversity.
The Constitution created ample space for language, cultural and religious diversity:
- It recognised our 11 official languages and proclaimed that they should enjoy parity of esteem.
- Government at national and provincial level would be required to use at least two official languages.
- People belonging to cultural, religious and ethnic communities would be able to enjoy their culture, practise their religion and use their language.
- Importantly, everyone would have the right to education in the language of their choice in public educational institutions, where such education was reasonably practicable.
It is only within such a framework of tolerant multiculturalism that all of us who live in multicultural societies can achieve our full potential as human beings in the many different areas and communities in which we operate.
It was accordingly gratifying when former President Nelson Mandela declared in his inaugural speech that “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another”.