On this day all the peoples of the world are encouraged to join together in sharing their different languages, practices and beliefs. The day is directed at reminding us all that variety and difference do not subtract from, but rather, enrich our collective human story.

This celebration of diversity comes at an opportune moment, in light of the recent inter-group conflict across South Africa. Following various incidents of race-based discrimination and the escalation of xenophobic attacks, 21 May provides not only a moment for reflection, but also an opportunity for all our diverse peoples to cultivate the cultural literacy necessary to oppose homogeneity under majoritarianism.

South Africa is a pluralist society, comprising a rich variety of cultures and ethnicities. Our modern society is the product of international, continental and local influences. All South Africans are enriched by the diversity of our cultural heritage; by the many places of origin, the many faiths practiced, and the many languages spoken. According to our National Development Plan (NDP), “the key to the country’s unity is embracing the reality that all South Africans have many identities, and yet are South African … Being South African has never been premised on the notion of a melting pot that fuses everybody into some amalgam. With diversity as a foundation, South Africans need to work continually to bring this diversity into unity.”

Unity does not get nurtured when people live past each other, nor can it be fostered under the hegemony of one group. Instead, unity is developed through dialogue and interaction, when people reach out to others and accept those reaching out to them. Unity is developed through embracing difference and finding the harmony that resides across the different cultural practices and norms. That is the kind of unity in diversity envisaged by Constitution. However, a united nation, says the NDP, “will not be created automatically, nor will it remain in a state of unity if its fault-lines are forgotten or papered over.” It is for this reason that the NDP calls on all South Africans to undertake a social compact and to actively promote the values of a unifying citizenry; for example, to commit to learning another official language.

It is for this reason that the cultural, language and religious rights in our Constitution are of such central importance. All our languages are supposed to enjoy parity of esteem and must be treated equitably; positive steps must be taken to elevate the status and advance the use of our indigenous languages; government at the national and provincial levels must use at least two official languages.

None of this is happening in practice: instead English is for all practical purposes being gradually imposed as the sole de facto official language.

In terms of section 29 of the Constitution everyone has the right to receive education in the official language or languages of their choice. However, our Minister of Higher Education and Training has proclaimed that there is no place for an Afrikaans university – despite the multiracial nature of the speakers of the language. Afrikaans single medium schools are being pressured increasingly to adopt parallel medium tuition, despite the reality throughout the world that wherever this is practised the world language quite quickly drives out the regional language.

All this poses a serious threat to everyone’s constitutional right to use the language and to participate in the culture of their choice.

On 21 May the United Nations calls on everyone to Do One Thing for Diversity and Inclusion. On this day people and organisations are encouraged to create the unity that the NDP and the Constitution speak of, to engage in intercultural dialogue, to build positive relations between communities and to combat polarisation and stereotyping.

Much like the celebrated 67 minutes of service to which we are called on Mandela Day, all South Africans are invited on 21 May to show their support for cultural diversity by (for example) learning about another religion; listening to music from a different culture; sampling traditional food or finding out about traditional celebrations from other cultures.  The one thing that South Africans might do could be as simple as learning to say sawubona (isiZulu and siSwati), molo (isiXhosa), hallo (Afrikaans), dumela (Sesotho sa Leboa, Sesotho and Setswana), avuxeni (Xitshonga), ndaa (Tshivenda) and lotjhani (isiNdebele). Another might be to consider the degree to which our government has ignored the cultural and language rights in our Constitution: the manner in which it is undermining diversity by seeking to impose a single official language on all South Africans and by eliminating educational institutions that continue to provide tuition in languages other than English.

By Klaus Kotze: Operations Officer, FW de Klerk Foundation

Photo credit: United Nations