Fighting prejudice

2009-09-17 00:00

“THIS is the world in which I want to live,” went through my mind as I walked into the dining room. A maulana was sitting shoulder to shoulder with a rabbi. Hindu pundits, Christian priests, Shembe priests, nuns and Buddhist monks in their saffron robes were all together in one room — conversing and laughing with each other. The occasion was an Iftaar — the daily fast-breaking meal during Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting.

We can only commend the Turquoise Harmony Institute that hosted the event for its ingenuity of using the Iftaar as an opportunity to promote inter-cultural dialogue and tolerance. The dinner served as an excellent occasion for all of us to celebrate our common humanity, while at the same time learn more about and from people from other religious and cultural backgrounds.

Historically, South Africa was characterised by ethnic and cultural self-obsession and intolerance. Blacks, coloureds, Indians and whites were born, lived, laughed, cried and died in separate­ communities. Ignorance and fear of people who are different­ from us are fertile grounds for breeding stereotypes and intolerance.

It is true that some people have a preference for their own language, customs, traditions and religion. But when this preference becomes a tool to measure, assess or judge others, it becomes dangerous and immoral — as history has taught us.

Blatant racism and intolerance are easily recognised. The problem lies with the more subtle form of intolerance, namely stereotyping. The danger with stereotyping is that we do it subconsciously. We must therefore consciously fight prejudice based on perceptions created by hearsay, our own conditioning and even the media. Stereotypes are rife in the media and film industry — sometimes blatant, sometimes masked as “cultural humour”. What may seem humorous can do serious harm and perpetuate stereotypes. We all know them — the jokes about the Jews, Muslims, Indians, Africans, Afrikaners, English, etc.

Anthropologist Johan du Plessis has pointed out that in many instances the main culprits in peddling stereotypes are parents. They transmit their experiences and perceptions and stereotypes to their children. “The children, without having tested the prejudices, will carry these as baggage for the rest of their lives until, if, through personal exposure they challenge the stereotypes themselves,” he said. Together, let us break this vicious cycle of contaminating the minds of our innocent children who are ready to accept and love all people if we allow them to do so.

We need to reflect on our own prejudice. Self-reflection is often not a pleasant experience but it brings renewed energy and understanding of the self and others. Its ultimate goal is to bring peace and harmony — not only to ourselves but also to those around us.

In our province and our country spring has sprung. In South Africa it is the season that arrests your attention and your imagination. The soft green leaves and vibrant colours that surround us compel us to take a new look at life. It is the season that has become synonymous with the renewal of life and of hope for the future. In the Zulu culture, the month of September, or Mandulo, is associated with a new beginning. This is the time to start afresh and start ploughing the lands and sowing the new crops. It is also Heritage Month — the time when you revisit your own roots but also reach out to all South Africans.

This time of awakening is an opportunity to renew our commitment to nation building — working together with a common vision of creating a better life for all our people and forging a united South African nation.

The intention to build cohesive, caring and sustainable communities is one of the government’s 10 priorities that were spelled out in President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation address. He reminded us of the lesson we were taught by our country’s first democratic president, Nelson Mandela: that this country belongs to all who live in it, black and white. The premier, Dr Zweli Mkhize, announced that from this year, the celebration of Heritage Day will be organised with the advice of a variety of stakeholders and cultural groupings.

Our South African motto, the celebratory Khoisan phrase Ke e Xarra Ke (United in diversity) serves as a living testimony to the choice we made 15 years ago — to find peaceful and productive ways of resolving our differences. Like Mahatma Gandhi, we reject violence as a means of resolving differences because — in his words — “when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does, is permanent.”

Seventeenth century philosopher Baruch Spinoza said: “Peace is not an absence of war, it is a virtue­, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice.”

This virtue of peace must be cherished. Without peace and social cohesion, democracy will face serious difficulties. Tensions within society are often associated with wide and widening gaps between the rich and the poor. Therefore, it is crucial that we, as the government, use our budgets and fiscal policy to promote social cohesion and reduce poverty.

But nation-building and social cohesion require partners — ordinary citizens who take the government’s hand, who don’t only tolerate each others’ cultural and religious differences but also celebrate their diversity. We must engage with each other and join hands to build our nation — together­.

• Ina Cronjé is the MEC for Finance, KwaZulu-Natal.

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