Speech of Deputy President Thabo Mbeki Opening the Debate on the Establishment of the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities, National Assembly, 4 August 1998

Madame Speaker,
Honourable Members of the National Assembly:

Many in this House, and others in our country, hold the view and act daily in a manner consistent with the understanding that the central question of South African politics is who will emerge as the winners and the losers in the general elections of 1999.

Our own view is that the central question of South African politics is whether, as a people we are capable of the sustained and creative ingenuity which would result in the creation of a society which would address the interests and aspirations of all racial, language, cultural and religious groups in a balance and mutually beneficial manner. Accordingly, the Government considers the debate we are holding today as one of the most important in the life of this parliament and in the country, since the birth of our democracy.

At the end of all the eloquent speeches, the country and ourselves will have to make a judgement as to how well the ideas we have advanced respond to the vision contained in our Constitution which is stated in the following words:

"We, the people of South Africa... believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity...'

As does our Constitution, all of us recognise the fact that the entity described as the South African nation is made up of diverse cultural, linguistic and religious groups.

To this we must necessarily add that it is also made up of diverse groups defined by race and colour.

Of course, we are not speaking of representations on a piece of canvas, with each figure on the artist's painting symbolising a pleasing visual image of each of the features of the multi-faceted South African person.

Rather, we are speaking of a living society, defined by a past, away from which it seeks to evolve, away from a set of power relations based on the assumption and the entrenchment of conflict.

We are speaking of individuals who love and hate, who curse and praise, who promote their own interests against those of all others, who accommodate their aspirations to those of others, who fight for their own space to displace others who occupy their own space, who jostle for power and resources, as the political parties in this House do everyday, using gentle or harsh words and peaceable and not such peaceable methods.

This afternoon, many of us will speak proudly of a country united in its diversity and of our rich heritage which derives from the multiplicity of our cultures.

And yet, even as we speak in this manner, some among us will argue the need to protect white minority cultural and language groups which feel threatened by the black hordes, while others will advance the perspective of the need to promote the interests of black cultural and language groups which were reduced to positions of subservience by the erstwhile dominant white minority.

We must therefore pose the question to ourselves as to whether the diversity of which we speak, with seeming pride, is a blessing or a curse; whether the fact of a hetrogenous society makes for an easier achievement of the goal of a better life for all, or whether we would have been better served if we had a more homogeneous society.

The problem however does not lie in the fact of the diversity of our population. No race, no shade of colour, no culture, no language and no religion in our society is a problem.

If the real problem we face, of ending the legacy of the past, persists, and with it the conflict inherently generated by the power relations which that past represents, it will not be because we are cursed with the gift of diversity.

The fault will express itself in conflict because we would have failed to find the intelligent ways and means by which we would organise ourselves to unite as a people, around common national aspirations and a common identity, while we honour and respect or diversity.

Our debate is occasioned by the need for us to take whatever we may consider to be the necessary steps leading to the establishment of the constitutional Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities.

Recognising the complexity of the issue, as announced by the Honourable Minister for Provincial Affairs and Constitutional Development during his budget vote earlier this year, the Government proposed that we should follow a particular procedure to prepare for the establishment of the Commission, whose creation is a constitutional requirement.

This debate, and others which are simultaneously taking place today in the provincial legislature, marks the beginning of what we trust will be a great national discourse which will address all matters relating to the establishment of the Commission.

As the House knows, the debate on this issue took place in the Western Cape Legislature on Tuesday, July 28th. The KwaZulu-Natal legislature will hold its own discussions on Friday, the 7th of August.

We hope that the debate in the national and provincial legislatures will succeed to place before the country the views of the political parties on how we should constitute the Commission and how it should go about discharging its functions as spelt out in the Constitution.

The provincial legislatures will then follow up with public hearings to enable our people as a whole to make their own contribution to the resolution of these outstanding questions.

Subsequent to this, it is planned that during the last week of September, as part of the observance of Heritage Day, a gender-representative national consultative conference, attended, among others, by representatives of cultural, religious and linguistic communities, will be held, to distil and build on the view that would have been expressed in the preceding processes.

As presently visualised, the Conference will include three sessions. The first will deal with the objective of nation building and give an opportunity to the political parties to state their view.

The second will provide an opportunity to the representatives of the cultural and other groups to make their own inputs.

The third session would deal with the objectives and functions of the Commission as set out in Section 185 of the Constitution as well as its composition, as provided for in Section 186.

The Minister and Department of Constitutional Development, assisted by Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, the Human Rights Commission, the Pan South African Language Board and other role players, will take responsibility for organising the conference.

We take this opportunity to invite the country as a whole and all organised and interested groups take note of the processes we have just announced and take the necessary steps to participate in the vital national discussion which we launch today.

I would also like to make an appeal to the mass media to do the best they can to report the various views that will be expressed throughout the processes we have detailed, as objectively and as comprehensively as they can.

The objective of equality, which occupies such a critical place in our constitutional order, must also constitute the very heart of the work we will be doing to define the composition and functioning of the Commission which, in terms of the Constitution, has such challenging tasks as:

"To promote respect for the rights of cultural, religious and linguistic communities" and,

"To promote and develop peace, friendship, humanity, tolerance and national unity among cultural, religious and linguistic communities, on the basis of equality, non-discrimination and free association."

And therein lies the great complexity of our work!

What is it that we will have to do together to overturn the great inequalities created by our colonial and apartheid past!

What must be done to create a situation of equality among our diverse cultural, religious and linguistic groups, so that they can live and build a happy future together, in conditions of peace and friendship, united by their common humanity!

As political parties and organisations, seemingly driven by an all-consuming passion to emerge out of election battles as political top dogs, and accordingly happy to engage in ethnic and racial mobilisation if this serves our purposes. we are faced with an especially difficult challenge of how we should contribute to the outcome visualised in our Constitution with regard to the Commission we are discussing.

If a miracle were possible, there are a number of propositions which we should join hands to promote throughout our society and in each of our constituencies.

As we have already indicated, the first of these would be that, as a country, we should strive to create a society in which all cultural, language and religious groups actually enjoy equality, with none relegated to a lesser position or disadvantaged relative to others.

This idea is expressed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in the following manner:

"Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to respect and to ensure to all individuals within their territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognised in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status." (Article 2, paragraph 1.)

Related to this is the fact that we cannot both allow for the perpetuation of the gross inequalities which characterise our society and remain loyal to the purposes stated in our Constitution and the international human rights instruments to which we have acceded or will accede.

Accordingly, we should all speak in one voice with regard to the need for an active policy on the part of the state, the government and all other elements of our society to promote non-discrimination and equality.

The notion that our society contains within it autonomous mechanisms which will and can activate themselves to produce conditions of equality cannot be sustained.

Quite clearly also, the achievement of the objective of equality in a manner that generates the least conflict required that, to use a colloquial expression, those who are more equal than others in our society should themselves see the realisation of this objective as being in their own interest as well and therefore themselves join the struggle to eliminate the apartheid legacy.

Once more, it would seem to us that this is a proposition which we should all seek to promote together.

Similarly, we need also to speak with one voice with regard to the reality that the realisation of the vision of equality, affecting all elements of the actual life conditions of all the people, will take time and a sustained national effort.

I believe that this requires sufficient of a sense of responsibility to ensure that none of us exploits the unquestionable fact of an unequal society to create illusions and false expectations that the legacy of centuries of an unequal social order can be eliminated tomorrow.

Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states:

"In those States in which ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language."

As this Covenant was being prepared, the then Secretary General of the United Nations made the following submission:

"The prevention of discrimination means the suppression or prevention of any conduct which denies or restricts a person's right to equality. The protection of minorities, on the other hand, although similarly inspired by the principle of equality of treatment of all peoples, requires positive action: concrete service is rendered to the minority group, such as the establishment of schools in which education is given in the native tongue of the members of the group... The protection of minorities therefore requires positive action to safeguard the rights of the minority group, provided of course that the people concerned (or their parents in case of children) wish to maintain their differences of language and culture."

Again, I believe we should be at one in promoting this proposition that, in our own situation, we should both prevent any conduct which denies or restricts a person's right to equality and, in the words of the Secretary General, also render concrete service to all groups.

How this perspective will apply in our own country, in which the minority is not the disadvantaged, is part of the challenge we must address collectively, consistent with the objective with which the Commission we are discussing will be charged, that of the promotion and development of peace, friendship, humanity, tolerance and national unity.

The matter we are discussing is of supreme importance not only to ourselves, but also to the millions of our fellow Africans on our Continent and others elsewhere.

Time will tell whether we have the wisdom to answer the challenging questions posed by the need to establish the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities in a manner that will help both ourselves and the rest of humanity to expand the frontiers of freedom, peace and happiness for all individuals and communities.

The challenge is that, whatever the detail of our proposals, we should anchor ourselves on the fundamental concept that "South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity."

Thank you.

Issued by: SA Communication Service

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