Reaffirming tolerance in Southern Africa on 16 November: The UN international day of tolerance

Salc : Staff Writer

By Kelvin Vries

On 16 November 1995, UNESCO’s member states adopted the Declaration of Principles on Tolerance. The Declaration defines tolerance as “respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human”.

The Declaration elevates tolerance from a moral duty to a political and legal requirement. Tolerance is the responsibility that upholds human rights, pluralism (including cultural pluralism), democracy and the rule of law. It is promoted by the recognition of the universal human rights and fundamental freedoms of others by virtue of their humanity. We must always be conscious of the fact that tolerance can in no circumstance be used to justify infringements of fundamental human rights. Rather it is relied on to consolidate those rights in the pursuit of social cohesion. As phrased in the Declaration “it means that one is free to adhere to one’s own convictions and accepts that others adhere to theirs. It means accepting the fact that human beings, naturally diverse in their appearance, situation, speech, behaviour and values, have the right to live in peace and to be as they are. It also means that one’s views are not to be imposed on others.”

Much remains to be done to ensure a Southern Africa pillared on knowledge, openness, communication, and freedom of thought, conscience and belief – all elements that foster tolerance.

Current developments in Southern African demand greater tolerance towards two vulnerable and marginalised groups in the region; LGBT persons and foreign nationals. With respect to the first group, courts in the region have at times encouraged tolerance of LGBT persons, and at other times discouraged it. Nevertheless, some recent examples from the region are encouraging in setting the tone for a more tolerant society. The Zimbabwean High Court affirmed that transgender citizens’ rights ought to be recognised like those of other citizens and that it is “delusional thinking to wish away the rights of transgender persons”. Similarly, the Botswana High Court has held that “there is nothing reasonable and justifiable by discriminating against fellow members of our society”. However, acceptance by the majority of the population of persons of a different sexual orientation is limited to South Africa (70%) and Namibia (54%).

Intolerance towards foreign nationals is most prevalent in South Africa. Following the 2008 xenophobic attacks in South Africa, several reports emerged that suggested a negative societal attitude towards foreign nationals in the country. Afrobarometer reported that 83% of South Africans are distrustful of foreigners. Another report showed that over 78% of police officers believed that foreigners caused a lot of crime regardless of immigration status.

The law can both safeguard against xenophobia and entrench it. In previous judgements South African courts have shown willingness to safeguard individuals from xenophobic policies, attitudes and attacks. The courts and the law cannot by itself consolidate tolerance in a society. A strong sense of political will directed towards changing societal attitudes is required. This involves an investigation into the causes of xenophobic attacks, extending the protection of policies and laws to foreign nationals inside South Africa, apprehending perpetrators of xenophobic hate speech and violence and deliberately cultivating social cohesion with foreign nationals.

The South African government is often accused of inaction with respect to the rise of xenophobic attitudes and attacks in the country. The mechanisms already in place such as the National Action Plan to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance is not very well known and only infrequently invoked and applied. The same seems true for the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action which invokes measures of prevention, education and protection aimed at the eradication of the racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. In this respect, the South African Human Rights Commission must fast track its national investigation on Migration, Xenophobia and Social Cohesion in South Africa.

Tolerance is key for the respect and protection of human rights in Southern Africa, especially for groups against whom discrimination is still widely reinforced. At the very least, tolerance affirms that difference should not be the basis of exclusion, marginalisation and stigma. At best, it celebrates the vitality that difference brings to society. The pluralist and diverse nature of African societies dictate that we celebrate difference. African constitutions said to reflect the values, norms and aspirations of their societies are more often than not built on dignity, tolerance and diversity. This comes as no surprise given the historical and systematic dehumanization of Africans on the continent. The international day of tolerance and the Declaration upon which is declared is an important day and tool that must serve to remind us of the past we wish to distance ourselves from and that tolerance is a cornerstone of any open and free democracy that respects human rights and the rule of law and that have hopes of securing social cohesion. Without tolerance we risk anarchy, discrimination, dehumanization and violation of fundamental human rights.

Kelvin Vries is SALC’s intern