SPEECH BY FORMER PRESIDENT F W DE KLERK TO THE SIXTH OLYMPIAD OF THE MIND: PARIS, 16 NOVEMBER 2000
“THE NEW COMMUNICATION CIVILISATION – WITH PARTICULAR REFERENCE TO THE CHALLENGES OF INTER-CULTURAL COMMUNICATION IN THE GLOBALISED WORLD COMMUNITY”
Ladies and gentlemen, etc.
The millennium is not just a nice round number: it in fact coincides with some of the most profound developments in human history:
The first of these is the process that we have come to call globalisation. During the past decades we have begun to lay the foundations of a new supranational global community:
- mass jet transportation has brought every corner of the earth within the reach of a single day’s travel – not only for businessmen but for hundreds of millions of tourists.
- satellite telecommunication now makes it possible to communicate with anybody, anywhere at any time and has enabled us to view breaking news and sports events on the other side of the world at the very moment they occur;
- the internet and the world-wide web – which are only ten years old – have given every person with a modem instant access to information on any subject from sources all over the world. They have expanded the speed and facility of international communication beyond our wildest dreams only a few years ago. We can expect that during the coming years it will have a major impact on many aspects of our lives – on the way we do our shopping; on the way we receive information and entertainment; on the way we communicate; and even on our ability to work from home.
All of this has profound implications for inter-cultural communication and indeed for us all – for individuals, for families, for companies and for countries.
In the first place the new information and communication economy will bring us many benefits:
The internet enables us obtain information on almost any topic from almost any source anywhere in the world in minutes rather than in days and weeks. We can now retrieve basic day-to-day information from computers about our bank statements and share portfolios. We can buy our groceries over the internet and can make hotel and travel reservations.
Previously, we used to receive all this information from human beings – from bank-tellers and reservation clerks, from our local grocer and butcher, from our stockbroker and insurance salesman and from our librarian and teachers. This means, inevitably, that in the new communication culture there will be a tendency for person-to-person communication to decrease and for person-to-computer communication to increase. More and more people will communicate in cyberspace with machines or with people they will never meet in the real world.
The new global communication culture is also breaking down old communication inhibitions, taboos and norms. The internet is free, uncontrolled and unregulated. As any browser knows, anything goes. The emerging global consciousness has dark and sordid corners that contrast with the free flow of knowledge and ideas that represent by far the greatest part of its traffic.
All of this has far-reaching implications for inter-cultural communication in the new millennium.
The reality is that while globalisation is bringing us many benefits, it also presents us with serious threats and challenges. Foremost among these is the threat that it constitutes to global cultural diversity.
The rich cultural diversity of our planet is one of our greatest communal and personal heritages. However, as a result of globalisation a new international uniformity is developing that is driven by the dominant position of English as the global business, entertainment and technological language:
- new generations are growing up all around the world who watch the same TV shows as children; who adulate the same pop music and movie idols as teenagers and who follow the same soap operas as adults.
- Their understanding of the world is increasingly influenced by the same global news networks and commentators.
- They follow the same fashions and buy the same globally marketed products – whether they are the toys and T-shirts spawned by the latest Disney feature; jeans and perfumes from the fashion houses of Paris, Milan or New York or the most recent electronic consumer items from Japan or Korea.
- They do their shopping in the same malls; buy hamburgers from the same fast-food chains, and work in shiny office buildings which look the same from Shanghai to Buenos Aires; from Frankfurt to Singapore.
The result is the development of a new generation of global citizens whose attitudes, tastes and aspirations are increasingly uniform.
Everywhere regional and national cultures and identities are under pressure. It has been estimated that half of the world’s 6 000 languages will disappear during the next century. Our cultural diversity is now under greater threat than the bio-diversity of our planet.
Globalisation accordingly presents us with a great challenge:
the challenge of preserving cultural identity in an increasingly materialistic and uniform world.
Inter-cultural communication in our globalised world also poses threats and challenges to our religious and spiritual heritage. This is because the globalised world is overwhelmingly secular. Many of the moral and religious values upon which our families and societies were traditionally based are under serious threat – if they have not indeed already been swept aside.
- Throughout much of the Western world, churches are empty and society has entered what has been described as the ‘post Christian era’.
- In Europe, a large proportion of couples no longer go through the process of marriage. Everywhere the traditional concept of the nuclear family is under threat.
- In Germany, Italy, Russia and much of Eastern Europe populations are beginning to decline as more and more people opt for smaller families – or for no families at all.
- The advent of the pill in the ‘sixties; the wide acceptance of sex outside of marriage and changing attitudes toward homosexuality have all contributed to a revolution in society’s attitudes to sexual morality.
- The Lady Chatterly’s Lover decision in the early sixties breached the traditional dam wall of taboo and propriety with which my generation grew up. Now, at any time our children are routinely exposed to a flood of obscenities and blasphemy on TV and in the movies that would have made earlier generations of sailors blush.
Many would argue that these developments are healthy and have helped to eliminate the hypocrisy and inhibitions that used to characterise the attitudes of former generations. They claim that they have introduced much more open, healthy and human approaches to many of our basic relationships. What they cannot deny, however, is that this new globalised communication culture represents a fundamental challenge to many of our traditional values and beliefs and to old communication norms and values.
The reality is that the driving forces behind globalisation are economic, technological, materialistic and rational – and that these forces are often inimical to our search for spiritual and cultural meaning.
We must remember that human beings first came together in larger groups, not primarily for mutual protection or to improve their hunting and gathering potential, but because they depended on society for their very identity and meaning. As Aristotle pointed out more than two thousand years ago, outside society man is either an animal or a god. A person, in effect, is a person because he or she communicates with other people. Throughout our history one of the prime functions of society has been the generation of meaning and identity for its members. It fulfilled this task by providing them with language and culture and by creating an environment in which myths, ritual and religion could flourish.
The religious impulse of our distant ancestors often had its root in their awe of the unknown; in the mysteries of the changing seasons and the movements of the sun, moon and stars; and in the eternal riddle of the beginning and end of life. But now, the globalised communication and information culture provides immediate answers to many of these ancient mysteries. We now know why the seasons change and how the stars themselves were born. Scientists are unravelling the genetic secrets of life itself.
Our cultural and religious identity was underpinned by ceremony and taboo; by the strict observation of the Sabbath; by prohibitions in some faiths against uttering the name of God; and in others against depicting His image or even the image of men. In our age, our sense of the divine has been seriously eroded by our appetite for rational analysis and the familiarity bred by Hollywood epics and the mass commercialisation of religion.
Only a generation or two ago, our moral orientation was fixed by immutable commandments, of black and white notions of right and wrong. But relativistic values and situational morality disseminated by the global communication culture have swept aside many of these ancient commandments and have reduced them to the proposition that we may do whatever we like provided we do not harm anyone else.
In the past we derived much of our meaning and purpose in life from the rich soil of our regional and national cultures; from our myths and from adherence to the religion into which we were born and raised. These factors inspired our art, our music and our literature and left us with a treasure house of meaning and beauty. Does the globalised culture have the capacity to do this? Is human society still fulfilling its primary function of generating meaning for its members?
At this time when more people are painting, sculpting, writing and composing music than at any time in our history why are we creating so little great art or music?
The other great reality is that globalisation is bringing more and more different cultures into closer and closer proximity with one another. As a result, there is now more inter-cultural communication than at any time in our history. Closer proximity and more frequent interaction unfortunately do not always result in more harmonious relations.
As we enter the new millennium we are confronted by the reality that most of the conflict in the world today no longer takes place between countries – but between religious, ethnic and cultural communities within countries. There are too many horrifying examples of this phenomenon: the conflict in Bosnia and Kosovo; the inter-ethnic genocide in Rwanda and Burundi; the decades-long war in the Sudan between the Moslem north and black African south; the seemingly intractable conflicts in Sri Lanka and Cyprus. Most of the conflicts in southern Asia and elsewhere in Africa also have their roots in the failure of different cultural, religious and ethnic communities to co-exist peacefully.
The source of much of this conflict lies in the inability of communities to communicate effectively about ancient grievances, mutual resentment, fears, concerns and aspirations.
As we discovered in South Africa ten years ago, the solution lies in building bridges of communication over the chasms of cultural difference, animosity, fear and prejudice that had divided us for centuries.
We started to communicate with one another tentatively at first in small groups at what we called ‘bosberade’ – or bush conferences.
These gatherings were intimate meetings between senior leaders of the opposing factions. They were held in secrecy at informal and relaxed venues away from the glare of publicity and pressures of the participants’ own constituencies. They enabled participants to get to know one another; to break down the stereotypes that they had developed over the years; and to identify common interests and concerns. Suddenly, we discovered that the people from the other side were not nearly so bad as we had depicted them in our propaganda. We saw that they did not, after all, have tails and horns and that they shared many of our own concerns and hopes for the future. The talks undoubtedly contributed to the creation of a climate in which more formal and public contacts could later take place. They also provided a model for the bush conferences that we subsequently instituted between the then government and the leaders of the other main parties during our negotiations. It was at such discreet and informal meetings – and not at the large set piece public conferences that the major break-throughs were usually made.
In our negotiations with formerly hostile parties we generally found it much easier to reach agreement on future goals than on present realities and particularly on past conflicts.
Our Truth and Reconciliation commission was supposed to enable us to reach national consensus on our past – but it failed, probably because our points of departure were simply too far apart.
In the process I learned that the mere exchange of words does not constitute communication: real communication requires us to understand the cultural and perceptual framework of the people with whom we are communicating. It is often only in that area where our respective cultural and perceptual worlds overlap that we really understand one-another. The function of communication is to keep on enlarging that area.
Today, we in South Africa are confronting many of the inter-cultural communication challenges that the globalised world will have to face tomorrow:
- our ten indigenous languages are struggling to hold their own against English – even though English is spoken as a first language by less than 8% of our population. Like cultures throughout the world, they are finding it difficult to withstand the dominance of English in the global business, entertainment, technology arenas.
- It will be important for us to ensure that all our cultures enjoy a place in the sun; that parents will continue to have the choice of educating their children in the language and culture of their choice; that the State provides services to citizens, wherever possible, in their own languages; and that our print and electronic media cater to the needs of all our cultures.
As in Europe, urbanisation and economic development in South Africa are bringing different ethnic and cultural communities into closer and closer interaction with one another. Increasingly, we will have to learn the communication skills that we will require to maintain healthy relations. These include many old-fashioned prescriptions: courtesy; mutual respect; friendliness and consideration. We must also do much more to learn other South African languages and to study the cultures and traditions of other communities.
The reality is that South Africa – like most the world – is still more a cultural archipelago than a land mass. We all continue to live on our own cultural islands and seldom venture to other islands. I suspect that this is as true for New York, London and Paris as it is for Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban.
One of the great challenges of the new millennium will be to nurture and develop our cultural islands and to protect them from being inundated by a uniform global culture. Another will be to build bridges of communication between our islands constructed firmly on mutual respect, consideration and understanding. These bridges will enable us to visit one another and enrich our lives by doing so.
Our globalised world faces similar challenges in the new millennium:
- we must take full advantage of the many benefits and miracles that the new information and communication economies offer;
- at the same time we must protect our cultural diversity from being inundated by the rampant globalised culture;
- in a world where circumstances are forcing us closer and closer together we must learn the communication skills that will enable us to live together with people from other cultures in peace and harmony.