Established in 1995 under the Declaration of Principles on Tolerance, the day aims to bring recognition and appreciation for the rich variety of the world’s cultures. According to the Declaration

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 only a moral duty; it is also a political and legal requirement. Tolerance, the virtue that makes peace possible, contributes to the replacement of the culture of war by a culture of peace.”

South Africa, with its complex multi-ethnic society and deeply conflicted history, needs to practise tolerance now, more than ever.

Recent incidents have raised the temperature in inter-racial relations. They include:

In a statement on Wednesday, Tony Ehrenreich, the Western Cape COSATU leader, expressed his outrage at “racist attacks that have been taking place against workers in historically white areas in the Western Cape.”  He threatened that COSATU would “hunt down and deal with the perpetrators in their own way as this racist behaviour appears to be condoned by the Premier”. He said he would fight this racism “with an eye for an eye.”

These are all examples of unacceptable and intolerant behaviour – and run counter to the millions of inter-racial contacts which take place every day, without incident, and usually with tolerance and goodwill. The difference is, perhaps, that in some cases misguided and intolerant individuals were involved, while in others the perpetrators were senior political leaders.

The Declaration of the Principles on Tolerance includes some pointers on what may be the reason for this growing intolerance. It says that

Tolerance at the State level requires just and impartial legislation, law enforcement and judicial and administrative process. It also requires that economic and social opportunities be made available to each person without any discrimination. Exclusion and marginalization can lead to frustration, hostility and fanaticism.”

The reality is that many white South Africans feel increasingly excluded and marginalised, not only by the State’s affirmative action and BBBEE policies, but by the ruling alliance’s categorisation of them as ‘colonialists’ and as the parties responsible for all South Africa’s current problems. Many black South Africans feel marginalised and excluded from social and economic opportunities, and are all too easily liable to accept the government’s explanation that all their problems have been caused by whites. The result on both sides is, as the Declaration predicts, “frustration, hostility and fanaticism.”

Part of the solution, as the Declaration requires, is education. It states that “the first step in tolerance education is to teach people what their shared rights and freedoms are, so that they may be respected, and to promote the will to protect those of others.”

Political, religious and community leaders have a primary role to play in promoting tolerance. They should avoid negative generalisations based on race and should work for the promotion of human dignity, equality and the elimination of discrimination in all their policies and statements.

Finally, on International Day for Tolerance – and on every other day of the year – all South Africans should treat one another with courtesy and consideration. We should understand and respect the cultural, historical and political diversity that makes ours such a fascinating and vibrant society. We must unite in our condemnation of offensive behaviour and language from any quarter. As the Declaration recommends, we should unite on the basis of the rights and freedoms that we all share.

The rejection of intolerance calls for a paradigm shift. This Tolerance Day demands a commitment from each and every South African to actively embrace the responsibility of knowing and sharing the rights enshrined in our Constitution, and working towards a non-racial, non-sexist, rights-based society. Only through an active citizenry, one which transcends intolerance and embraces difference, can the national motto of !ke e: /xarra //ke (unity in diversity) be promoted.

By Klaus Kotze: Operations Officer, FW de Klerk Foundation

Photo credit: United Nations