USING DIVERSITY TO PROMOTE SOCIAL COHESION

Heritage month reminds us of the diversity of backgrounds – linguistic, family (clan) and religious – with which we are blessed, and it is fitting that we should celebrate them. Let us not forget, however, that the apartheid edifice was built upon contrived differences – race and socially engineered ethnic groups. These categories continue to exert too much influence over our thinking, as when they manifest themselves as ‘anti-Indian’ sentiment. Global rhetoric about the ‘war on terror’ may also lead to irrational religious prejudice. While we celebrate our individual heritage, let us also make an effort to understand that of ‘the other’ to promote much needed nation building. . In the process we shall discover that, as sixteenth century poet and mystic John Donne put it, no one is an island; we are all shaped by our common human history. Let us also celebrate that heritage, and build a nation which is a harmonious microcosm of it.
Despite it being an artificial category (we whites lost our pigment for biological reasons when we migrated to areas where the sun was scarce) race continues to rear its ugly head. Its meaning lies in its association with the gross exploitation which started at the beginning of the sixteenth century when colonial expansion began, especially in the form of slavery which was of a different order to that which taken place in recorded history. Because apartheid was about levels of economic exploitation based on race, and despite progress, we still have a long way to correct the imbalance. However, generalisations about racial groups, such as the recent debate about whether Indians were advantaged under apartheid relative to indigenous Africans, oversimplify matters, and obscure the fact that poverty was also widespread in Indian communities. Like other racial comparisons it also ignores the fact that the Bantustan system improved the financial status of many Africans, some of whom became extremely wealthy through their business deals. Of course our past is important in understanding the present, but what we should be asking is why we have not made more progress in righting its wrongs, especially in the crucial field of education, instead of shifting the blame on to other racial groups. Similarly, it is easier to blame whites for colonialism than demand answers about the continuation of migrant labour because of the failure to develop the labour reservoir reserves which were the rationale for colonialism.
Prejudice also manifests in media exchanges between Hindus and Muslims. Both of these groupings have played important roles in shaping the world as we know it today. India gave rise to probably our oldest pacifist movement, and it is to Indian mathematicians that we owe the concept of Zero. To Islam, the modern world owes a great debt of gratitude. It was the medieval Islamic scholars – including philosophers and scientists – who kept alive the work of Aristotle and other Greek philosophers when it had been lost to Europe in the dark ages, influencing authors and scientists such as Dante and Roger Bacon. The works of Ibn-Sinam, described as the greatest of their philosophers, impacted on the arguments of philosophers such as Thomas Acquinus. From the eighth century Bagdad was the seat of world learning. Eleventh century polymath and poet Omar Khayamm devised a calendar which was more accurate than the Gregorian one, and Moslem scientists influenced Christian thinking in Spain for seven centuries, probably impacting on the Renaissance. (Author Gavin Menzies also argues that China, as well as circumventing the world before Colombus, made an important contribution to the Renaissance)
Africa is, of course, our original home and racial melting pot. As a result of trade with the Mediterranean powerful states such as Ghana flourished while Europe was still in the dark ages. Trade between Asia and the continent – including East Africa – has been going on for millennia, as has intra-continental migration. Mating goes with migration, leading to the heterogenous population of today. There are no pure races : To use apartheid terminology, we are all’ coloureds’.
It was colonialism too which created the fixed ethnic identities we see in South Africa (and many other parts of the continent), which are a legacy of indirect rule refined by apartheid. Apartheid used a long discredited notion of culture, an offshoot of the scientific racism which led to the Nazi horrors, to try to justify its Bantustan policy. Unfortunately the groups it defined have assumed a life of their own, and, with our nation-building exercise seeming to have fallen away in recent years, tribalism rearing its ugly head all over the country, especially – because of political and economic dynamics – in KZN. While there is a tendency to generalise the term Zulu to all indigenous people in this province, it has no historical validity and other indigenous groupings include Bhaca, Hlubi and Thonga. There are also many Xhosa and Pondo residents, and intermarriage is common. King Shaka, a man of mythic proportions, is celebrated as a Pan-African icon and hero.
While we celebrate our cultural (shared practices and/or ideas) heritage we also need to learn from our recent past (and the experience of strife torn societies all over the world) : Culture should never be used to garner political support, or to justify the control of political and economic resources. We need to put nation-building back on our agenda.