On 16 November each year, since 1995, members of the UN pause (or not) to reflect on the meanings of tolerance and its destructive converse, intolerance.
In declaring a Day of Tolerance, UNESCO asserts in the preamble of the Declaration of Principles on Tolerance, the reference to the UN Charter, which states, “We, the people of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, ...to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, …and for these ends to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours”.
Article 1 of the Principles of Tolerance elucidates simply and elegantly the foundational value contained in the Principles by guiding the meaning of tolerance and its universal resonance and thus requires an extensive quote from the text:
- Tolerance is respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human. It is fostered by knowledge, openness, communication, and freedom of thought, conscience and belief. Tolerance is harmony in difference. It is not a moral duty; it is also a political and legal requirement.
- Tolerance is not concession, condescension or indulgence. Tolerance is, above all, an active attitude prompted by recognition of the universal human rights and fundamental freedoms of others.
- Tolerance is the responsibility that upholds rights, pluralism (including cultural pluralism), democracy and the rule of law. It involves the rejection of dogmatism and absolutism and affirms the standards set out in international human rights instruments.
- Consistent with respect for human rights, the practice of tolerance does not mean toleration of social injustice or the abandonment or weakening of one’s conviction. It means that one is free to adhere to one’s own convictions and accepts that others adhere to theirs.
The meaning of tolerance captured above seamlessly accords with South Africa’s own Constitution, so eloquently stated in the Preamble,
We, the people of South Africa, recognise the injustices of our past, honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land; respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.
If the above represents a warm and fuzzy ideal, a utopia of sorts, why continue to celebrate a day whose significance is elusive?
Perhaps the simple answer is that we have no choice as the alternative is too ghastly to contemplate. The path to self-destruction in a world torn asunder by bigotry, fanaticism and intolerance is one to avoid at all costs.
Testing Times in South Africa’s Hazy Rainbow
The currency of this oft-used term to describe South Africa as the rainbow nation waxes and wanes, influenced by among other issues, rates of economic growth (or lack thereof), political contestation/state capture, labour strife and most recently, #FeesMustFall.
Against this backdrop, latent stresses - including ideological and political ones - compounded by an economy struggling to grow and respond to people’s aspirations, aggravate fissures in a society recovering from a broken past.
The current fragile body politic and inter-community tensions, whether centring around race, class, gender, age and sexual orientation, among others aggravate the process of grappling with the past, its legacies and ask the where to from here question.
Addressing the where to from here question requires critical faculties, deliberation, courage and great tolerance. Tolerance that recognises that immense progress has been made to enable the hard conversations to be had, long before the advent of the TRC, during its deliberations and long after its conclusion, and crucially, that these conversations have by no means been concluded.
On reflection, the irony of the current political challenges is that it has had the effect of unifying the nation irrespective of real or imagined fissures. The demand for an end to corruption, state capture (including of the Treasury), clean government, effective governance and the imperative to grow the economy is a demand by a citizenry united, speaking with one voice. A voice that imbibes a multiplicity of identities and differences whether race, religion, sexual orientation, age, gender, whether you reside in a rural or urban area, political affiliation and ideology.
An acknowledgement that with respect for diversity and the absence of dogma to craft uniformity of being, thought and action, South Africans can continue to depend on a fundamental value and tenet of our Constitution with its emphasis on human dignity, equality and freedom, to grow and entrench an open, tolerant and robust nation in which the Rule of Law and democratic practice flourish.
The task is by no means a simple one nor conforms to a time frame or budget. It is a hard exercise in tolerance and having a day dedicated to focusing the mind on this imperative will hopefully ensure positive seepage in thoughts and actions beyond the 16 November.
By Zohra Dawood, Director: Centre for Unity in Diversity