Ladies and gentlemen, for various reasons, we do not talk to each other in South Africa. In some instances, the reasons are practical: we do not understand each other (we quite literally do not speak the same languages) or we do not share communities.

In some instances, the reasons are ideological: we do not like each other, or we do not agree on ideas or solutions. Whatever the reason, we do not talk to each other. We assume. We perceive. We judge. Unfortunately, due to our terrible past, we do this primarily based on race. I will come back to this point.

Pardon me for relating today’s discussion to the Constitution in a way, but that is what I do. I promote and uphold the Constitution and the values, rights and principles enshrined therein – in the interests of everyone in South Africa.

Our Constitution and constitutional democracy are about people. The very first words of our Constitution are “We, the people of South Africa”. This Constitution seeks to lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which “government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law”. It seeks to “free the potential of each person” and it offers a simple but most sincere prayer: “May God protect our people” – “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika”.

Unfortunately, we the people, regularly do not see each other as people, but as obstacles, objects or even outcasts. When we do that, we make it easy to justify our own prejudices and preconceived ideas about each other – especially in relation to race, but certainly not limited to it. We talk about equality and fairness, but only in context of our own worlds and concerns. We celebrate our Constitution and those constitutional values, rights and principles which affirm that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity. However, we have not even begun to understand what either unity or diversity really means. Let alone unity in diversity.

Ladies and gentlemen, I believe this is because the people of South Africa do not live the same worlds – we are very much on different pages when we talk about achieving equality. We do not have compassion for each other and in many cases, we simply to not care unless it involves me personally. Having said that, for many white South Africans, 1994 was the big compromise – letting everyone vote. Those white South Africans do not necessarily understand that 1994 was not a compromise, it was justice. Many white South African still do not understand that it was indeed only the beginning of the long road to achieving equality in which no one is more equal than another. However, many other white South Africans do understand that, and do want to see a truly equal South Africa, but are second-guessed purely because of the colour of their skin.

In turn, for many black South Africans, equality means only one thing – transformation, affirmative action, restorative justice (or that is at least the perception of many white South Africans). As such, many white South Africans fail to see the sincerity of a great number of black South Africans in trying to foster social cohesion.

South Africa is still a hugely unequal society – even more so than in 1994 (but that is a discussion for another day). Nevertheless, the Constitution did not envisage a society in which some are more equal than others. The Constitution sought to bring about a society in which “everyone is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law” – in which everyone has “full and equal enjoyment of all rights and freedoms” regardless of any precondition. Of course, in order to achieve such a society, the Constitution allows “legislative and other measures designed to protect or advance persons, or categories of persons, disadvantaged by unfair discrimination” – as long as those measures are fair.

I raise the matter of equality as I think that this may be one of best examples of how our subjective understanding of each other and our selfish own-interests are manifesting in our daily expressions and interactions with each other: I want to be treated equality and fairly, but do I afford that same right to others? The result of these subjective interpretations are growing animosity in society fueled by racialism, individual acts of racism, indifference, disdain, entitlement and resentment, often further perpetuated by politicians and the media for their own respective reasons.

As a society, we have to deal with the things that are going wrong in our country, but we have to do so on the basis of mutual respect. We do not need to agree with each other on how to solve that what is wrong, or who may be the best people or party to solve it – after all, that is what democracy is all about. However, we have to agree to disagree within a framework in which dignity triumphs – in which mutual respect has no preconditions. We have to come to understand that how we as individuals treat each other in our day-to-day lives – what we say and do and how we say and do it – impacts on our society and unity as a whole.

We also have to understand that unity and social cohesion are not a function of government (whose behaviour can at best promote unity and at worst destroy it). Instilling social cohesion and mutual respect is up to us as individuals. Unfortunately, the injustices of our past and persistent social and political ills also influence how South Africans view each other, often resulting in people no longer seeing each other as people, but rather as products of our own prejudices.

The Constitution seeks to heal the divisions of the past by laying the foundations for a democratic and open society. In short, it seeks to build a united and democratic South Africa founded on the values of human dignity, the achievement of equality, the advancement of human rights and freedoms, non-racialism and non-sexism, supremacy of the Constitution and Rule of Law, the right to vote and a multi-party system of democratic government resulting in accountability, responsiveness and openness.

However, the Constitution is not self-executing. It only provides the framework and the rules in terms of which the people of South Africa must give life and meaning to the kind of society the Constitution envisages. For us to heal the divisions of the past and to build such a society – a society and a South Africa united in its diversity – we have to show and treat each other with mutual respect. We have to understand that unity in diversity means that each one of us has the right to be different, but to be treated equally. We have to set our prejudices aside and start building meaningful and equal relationships with those around us. We have to listen to, and learn from each other, and we have to engage in real dialogue with each other. And each one of us has to do this with uninhibited and unconditional respect for each other.

Mutual respect brings about understanding and compassion – something that is largely amiss in South Africa today. Mutual respect seeks to give more than it seeks to take. Without mutual respect, unity in diversity will remain merely a phrase in the Preamble to our Constitution, leaving the people of South Africa puppets of their past. We have to change our perceptions of each other and see people as people regardless of race, gender, culture, religion, sexuality or any other ground.

Crucially, it has to start with me.

May God bless the People of South Africa. Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika.