Karl Marx rightly said people make their own history but in circumstances they have inherited from the past and not in circumstances they have chosen themselves. Hence, debates on language, race and class inevitably take place in the shadow of the past and under the heavy burden of a legacy of racial discrimination in the country and of Western colonialism in the world.
At the same time, universities feel the pressure of the present-day realities of unemployment, poverty and inequality.
It is true that when it comes to language, culture, race and class in the country there are opposing views, and the question is how it should be handled, going forward.
Marx said: “Philosophers interpret the world,” but also that the “challenge is to change it”.
In short, South Africans must not allow events of the past or differences in the present to undermine our future. Of course, a motorist has to check the rear-view mirror at times, but in the journey to the future it is vital to look forward.
A successful South Africa requires that our vision for the future be stronger than our memories of the past.
The question is how all of us can build a better country together.
My view as an Afrikaner and AfriForum chairperson is that Afrikaners do not want to hold on to the past, but are looking for spaces to help build a successful South Africa for a better future.
Most Afrikaners entered the post-1994 era with some hesitation, but with great expectations about the future, comforted by President Nelson Mandela’s assurance that no one will ever be oppressed again. However, the euphoria of a new democratic beginning, which would have room for everyone, is making way for a sense of disillusionment and alienation among many Afrikaners. This stems from a growing sense that government wants to reshape South Africa’s multicultural reality into its ideological vision of a mono-cultural society.
The question is how cultural diversity can be reconciled with national unity. The answer lies in “unity in diversity” as the cornerstone of our constitution. Only “diversity” was emphasised during apartheid. The essence of the 1994 accord, on the other hand, was not to enforce “unity” at all cost, but to achieve a balance between unity and diversity. We chose not to do what Lenin told Pavlov; we chose not to “standardise humanity”.
Multiculturalism presupposes a positive acceptance of diversity based on the right to mutual recognition and respect between cultural communities. Room for diversity creates the common ground for unity. Therefore, multiculturalism is a precondition for the equal enjoyment of the individual rights citizens have. This ensures equal citizenship.
As Judge Albie Sachs put it: Equality means equal concern and respect across difference. It does not presuppose the elimination or suppression of difference. Respect for human rights requires the affirmation of self, not the denial of self. Equality therefore does not imply a levelling or homogenisation of behaviour or extolling one form as supreme, and another as inferior, but an acknowledgement and acceptance of difference. At the very least, it affirms that difference should not be the basis for exclusion, marginalisation and stigma. At best, it celebrates the vitality that difference brings to any society.
For Afrikaners, the exchange of majority rule for minority protection and human rights constituted the essence of the 1994 accord. Over and above extensive measures to promote unity, provision was also made for a multicultural reality. By including comprehensive constitutional protection for linguistic and cultural communities, should they desire that, unity could be ensured.
One of the underlying premises was that linguistic and cultural communities must have spaces within which they can be a majority to prevent every aspect of their existence being dominated by demographic majorities. In so doing, political, cultural and even economic marginalisation could be averted and everyone could have citizenship of equal value.
Past lines of division cannot be overcome by diminishing nation-building and conciliation to assimilation into the majority. That requires cultural suicide – too high a price to pay the world over.
However, in South Africa assimilation is pursued by using state ideology in a bid to transform the country and all its institutions in such a way as to mirror the country’s demographics.
Thus, under the banner of the promotion of diversity, the exact opposite – uniformity – is enforced. Representativeness requires that all institutions, taken together, reflect the country’s demographics, not each institution by itself.
This stems from the demographic realities of our country and its people. However, the totalitarian overtones of enforced race formulae fly in the face of freedom as the essence of democracy.
As a result, many Afrikaners believe they have become second-class citizens because our language, culture, institutions, heritage and way of life have been fundamentally prejudiced.
Many Afrikaners feel humiliated, alienated and vilified by such prejudice and are experiencing a profound loss of culture and identity. Therefore, to many, the former liberators have turned into conquerors and they have a sense that while they voted for democracy, they have landed up with the consequences of a revolution.
South Africans are united by the constitutional values of freedom, equality and dignity. These values apply to all in the country – including Afrikaners, enabling them to democratically express their language and culture. When one person’s freedom is threatened, then everyone’s freedom is in danger. Therefore, the only guarantee for lasting freedom is that each one protects the other’s freedom, be it personal freedom, economic freedom, freedom of the media, freedom of the courts or cultural freedom. Culture communities, such as the Afrikaners, that want to celebrate their cultural freedom can be an important part of the checks and balances protecting the freedom of all South Africans.
Cultural freedom does not mean exclusion based on race, but voluntary inclusion and free association on the basis of language and culture.
A democracy without cultural freedom is indeed but freedom for the majority.
It is true that in the past, Afrikaners discriminated unfairly based on race. As a consequence, Afrikaners have become a popular political punching bag and scapegoat in certain circles.
But he or she who sees racism in any legitimate project by Afrikaners to protect their language and culture, is promoting the agenda of populist politicians who only want to fuel hate and hostility.
South Africa is facing many challenges and there are plenty of opportunities for wise leadership to promote mutual recognition and respect rather than sow division by denigrating as racist anything that is Afrikaans.
The UN Human Development Report 2004 succinctly states: “If the history of the 20th century proves anything, then it is that efforts to wish away culture groups or trying to assimilate them will only provoke a vigorous cultural revival”.
For this reason, South Africans should rather pursue our national motto – to unite in our diversity.
* Buys is chairperson of AfriForum.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.