People who imagine that ethnic identity is an artificial hang-over from a regrettable and unlamented nationalistic past are deluding themselves.

For better or worse, we are shaped by our cultural heritage, by our language and our history.

Our identity is intimately affected by the languages that we speak. It is almost impossible for us to imagine the Italian national character coupled with the German language – or the German national character arising from the French language.

In the same way our cultural heritage impacts many aspects of our lives – including the food we eat; our manners; the games we play and the festivals that we celebrate.

History also plays a powerful role in shaping our individual and national identities. Despite their best efforts to forget the past, many Europeans continue to drag their often painful histories with them, like invisible balls and chains.

So it is with us South Africans. Virtually every interaction between whites, blacks, coloureds and Indians is affected by disturbing – but usually unspoken – memories of our deeply divided past.

So, how did we South Africans succeed in managing the transition to democracy of our own multi-ethnic society?

South Africa comprises many peoples, ethnicities, cultures, religions and languages. They include
• nine black ethnic groups – each speaking its own language – but increasingly conversant in English;
• Coloured South Africans – most of whom still speak Afrikaans – but who also include a strong Moslem community descended from Indonesians who were brought to the Cape by the Dutch East India Company;
• Moslem and Hindu Indians most of whom speak English as their home language;
• my own community, the Afrikaners, who speak Afrikaans and belong mostly to the three Dutch Reformed churches; and
• white English-speaking South Africans – and smaller communities from various European countries.

These identities are fluid; they are increasingly interacting with one another – particularly within the younger generation; and they are slowly evolving an overarching sense of our common South Africanness.

Nevertheless, all aspects of South African society, – including public attitudes and political affiliations – continue to be strongly influenced by ethnicity.

How did all this come about?

Modern South Africa was forged in the wars of conquest that the British fought during the nineteenth century against the three dominant peoples of the sub-continent – the Xhosa, the Zulus and the Afrikaners. At the beginning of the twentieth century Britain found itself in possession of an assortment of territories in Southern Africa – that one historian quipped it had acquired in a fit of absent-mindedness.

What to do with these troublesome and expensive possessions? The solution was to create a union or federation along the lines of the recently established British federations in Canada and Australia. And so the Union of South Africa was born – a mere hundred and three years ago – with artificial borders encompassing widely different peoples, often with diametrically divergent interests.

The question that confronted South Africa following the end of colonialism in the early ‘sixties was how could full political rights be extended to black, coloured and Indian South Africans without at the same time threatening the rights of the white ethnic groups?

For twenty years the National Party government tried to address this question by attempting to unscramble the omelet that had been created by the establishment of the Union of South Africa in 1910. Each of the black nations would have its own ethnic state in the areas that it had traditionally occupied and would, in time, advance to full independence as members of a multiethnic ‘Commonwealth of Southern African states’. Indian and coloured South Africans would be brought into the same consociational polity as the whites – where they would decide jointly on ‘common affairs’ but where they would have control over their own ethnic affairs. It was supposed to function along the lines of the consociational arrangement between the Flemish and Walloons here in Belgium.

The proposed solution – like most such ventures in social engineering – was a complete failure. The territories set aside for blacks comprised less than 14% of the territory of South Africa; the South African economy was becoming more integrated with every year that passed; there was no region where whites comprised anything near a majority. More seriously, the policy was strongly rejected by the overwhelming majority of black, coloured and Indian South Africans. In the end it led to manifest and unacceptable injustice.

As we discovered, the challenge was not how South Africans from different ethnicities should live apart – it was what we needed to do to enable them to live together in mutual respect and harmony.

After ten years of reforms initiated by my predecessor, President PW Botha, it became increasingly clear that only a common constitutional system would be able to accommodate the rights, interests and aspirations of all South Africans.

By 1989 – when I became President – the situation was suddenly ripe for change. All sides had agreed that there could be neither a military nor revolutionary solution; 50 000 Cuban forces had been withdrawn from Angola; the UN plan for the independence of Namibia had been successfully implemented; and the fall of the Berlin wall had created entirely new geostrategic and economic realities.

We were ready to embark on fundamental constitutional transformation – but in so doing how would we be able to ensure that none of our ethnic groups would be submerged by the new majority?

We believed that this question could be dealt with by negotiating a strong constitution.

My party favoured a power-sharing model – similar to that of Switzerland – in which there would have been maximum autonomy for our constituent communities. We wanted mechanisms that would have assured inclusivity – but not a veto – for minorities in the processes of government – such as the idea of a rotational presidency and a multi-ethnic state council. Unfortunately, we were not successful and ended up with a majoritarian system.

Our new constitution nevertheless made full provision for the accommodation of diversity. It recognised our eleven official languages and proclaimed that they should enjoy parity of esteem.
• It required us to strive for unity within our diversity.
• It prohibited discrimination, inter alia, on the basis of race, language and culture.
• It enjoined the state to take special action to develop our indigenous languages.
• It stated that government at national and provincial levels must use at least two official languages.
• It made provision for the establishment of a Pan South African Language Board to promote the language provisions in the constitution.

The Constitution importantly recognised the right to receive education in the language of one’s choice in public educational institutions, where such education is reasonably practicable.

It also created space for language, cultural and religious diversity.
• Everyone would have the right to use the language and participate in the cultural life of their choice.
• People belonging to cultural, religious and ethnic communities would be able to enjoy their culture, practise their religion and use their language.
• They would be able to form cultural, religious and linguistic associations and other organs of civil society.
• Finally the Constitution established a Commission to protect and promote of the rights of cultural, religious and linguistic communities.

Unfortunately, virtually every one of these provisions has been ignored or diluted since the adoption of the Constitution in 1996.
• English is increasingly the single de facto official language.
• The supposed official status of the remaining ten languages is increasingly an illusion.
• Little or nothing has been done to develop our indigenous languages.
• Afrikaans, as a university language, is under enormous pressure – and there are increasing demands that Afrikaans schools should also provide tuition in English. However, wherever this happens, English tends to drive out the regional language.
• The organizations that were established to develop and promote our languages and cultures are underfunded and ineffective.

During the past 19 years South Africa has been moving further and further away from the ideal of cultural, religious and language diversity.

Perhaps the most ominous threat to diversity comes from increasing demands that minorities should conform to the goal of pervasive and all-embracing demographic representivity. The idea is that in a perfectly non-racial society all institutions in the public, private and non-governmental sectors should reflect the ethnic composition of society at all levels – down to the first decimal place.

In a multi-community society like South Africa demogaphic representivity would mean that minorities would be subject to the control of the majority in every area of their lives: in their jobs, in their schools, in their universities and in their sports. It would reintroduce a situation in which important aspects of the lives of South African citizens would once again be determined by their race – and not by individual merit.

Unfortunately, the ideal of a multi-ethnic society articulated in our constitution is under enormous threat.

However, the need to accommodate ethnic diversity is not derived only from the constitution. There are also strong philosophical and practical reasons why it is essential in diverse societies such as our own.

• Ethnic minorities now comprise one seventh of the world’s population. As you Europeans know, all countries are now becoming more multiethnic – confronting them with the same challenges that we in South Africa face.
• Accommodation of diversity is essential for the promotion of harmony in multicultural societies. Most conflicts in the world are now between different ethnic, language and religious groups within countries – and not between countries.
• In our rapidly globalising world cultural and language diversity is also under threat. It is estimated that we will lose more than half of the world’s 6 000 languages before the end of the century. Everywhere from China to Peru people are being inundated by a new global culture. The language of the global culture is English.

How are minority cultures – including our own indigenous cultures in South Africa – going to withstand this onslaught of globalisation?

How are different ethnicities going to coexist within increasingly multicultural countries?

How will people in our globalising world be able to retain their personal identities that are so deeply rooted in, and dependent on, their cultures, religions and languages?

The struggle to retain our diverse identities in an increasingly homogeneous world will be one of the great challenges of the century.

It will also be a critical factor in determining the future success not only of South Africa – but of Europe as well.