As the world commemorates International Day of Tolerance today, it would behove us to remember the simple and elegant truth of the quote above. It highlights the imperative for humanity to hold true to its best impulses and guard against its worst. This, in a world beset with increasing levels of hate, violence, factionalism and polarising politics.

That the UN declared in 1996 the need for an annual (and hopefully daily) reflection on tolerance is commendable but the challenge is that of institutionalising the myriad values associated with building such a culture in society. Tolerance is rarely a singular process but is rooted in values of respect and tolerance, with the concomitant legal and constitutional protections that allow these to flourish.

It is fortuitous that the Centre for Unity in Diversity held a discussion on 14 November that examined the vital components of what tolerance means and the threats to it. Putting the searchlight on the issue of civility and respect by examining the grave matter of The Loss of Civility in Discourse, the CUD provided a public platform to examine and debate the issue and importantly its consequences – both in South Africa and globally. The discussion was rich in examining meanings of civility and as one participant asked, “Is there a spectrum for its measurement?” This is an important issue so as not to assume that there is a standard measure and response to meanings of civility. Other points of interest in the discussion included the complex interface between civility and freedoms; the nexus between civility and speaking your truth as another participant referred to it and the question of boundaries between civility and honesty. These resonant, relevant and contextual issues are matters for continuous engagement to both avoid complacency but more importantly to remain alert to how fundamental values like respect, civility and tolerance undergird changing political and social contexts. This, especially in a time when social media and the internet are vital means of communication, particularly for younger people. The powerful machinery that is social media is not easily scoffed at because it is often here that opinions are formed.

South Africa is by no means unique in its current crisis where intolerance and “othering” based on race, ethnicity and gender are being stirred, albeit by some in the political establishment. The recent mid-term elections in the USA saw rabid racist, sexist and anti-immigration sentiments on display too. Our keynote speaker at the CUD discussion, Professor Mills Soko, also highlighted intolerance on display in many other parts of the world, not least in Hungary. Their far-right government has sacrificed many values close to the hearts of human rights advocates who decry Hungary’s communist past, which was the antithesis of an open society – tolerant and nurturing – in favour of an increasingly closed and intolerant society.

The situation is not all doom and gloom of course. A ray of sunshine and hope is the recent convening of the Paris Peace Forum from 11 to 14 November 2018. The imperative for the Forum is both an examination of that which ails the world and how best to restart the process of healing the fabric that has been torn asunder. In motivating for such a Forum, it was said that “Peace is not just the suspension of war. It is made up of all the solutions that help minimise international tensions: cooperation to fight climate change and resource scarcity, institutions to channel power rivalries and administer global public goods, justice to assuage grievances and frustration, regulation to address inequalities and abuses of power”.

This quote aptly sums up drivers of intolerance and why it is vital to apply a composite set of responses – including education – in homes, schools and communities, to build cultures of respect and tolerance. Clearly the erosion of these has resulted in a crisis. The time is now, to gather as stewards for a better society, country and world, to rebuild the foundations of what it means to be tolerant and to act with tolerance toward others, all in furtherance of a common humanity.

By Ms Zohra Dawood, Director

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