The need to protect our constituent languages and traditions



Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Weekly Newsletter to the Nation

My dear friends and fellow South Africans,

In the year that we celebrated the tenth anniversary of the adoption of our constitution, a lively debate continued to take place about the need to protect our constituent languages and traditions.

Some argue that a concern expressed over the survival of a culture or a people might be a camouflage about a standard of living, an insincere concern or even undiluted racism. This is, needless to say, unacceptable.

I recognise that often in our country’s troubled history symbols of culture, race and tradition have been perverted to sow discord and division amongst our disparate peoples.

As a proud South African and Zulu traditional leader, I have often reflected upon on the need forone to proceed with sensitivity in one of the most, if not the most, diverse society on earth with eleven official languages. Prejudice continues to raise its ugly head in South Africa.

William Hazlitt’s assertion “prejudice is the child of ignorance” in his deftly argued essay on prejudice is undoubtedly true. Although, I believe, the word ‘fear’ would be an equally good substitute for ignorance. Like all other human characteristics, prejudice is a universal phenomenon, irrespective of colour, class and creed.

At worse, in a few countries, like ours, prejudice was the cornerstone government policy. Colonial-era segregation and apartheid were based, thrived and survived on pure racial prejudice. The superiority of whites was promoted on the basis of previous achievements. The inferiority of blacks was derived from ruthless racial stereotyping. On the subject of prejudice, South Africans could write novels.

The ultimate goal of the architects of segregation and apartheid was to create a nation of conformists. One was required to conform to vague ideals of a white, heterosexual, male-dominated hegemony.

This structure was solid, its frontiers were impossible to transcend. The society it created was a social wreck, with its class mobility impaired, individual ambition stilted, and social progress retarded. To this day, South Africa’s fractured society bears psychological scars. The evidence of this is quite palpable.

It is astonishing that we South Africans of different hues, cultures and languages, who are neighbours, know so little about each other. We, tend to think of our neighbours as members of another ethnic group rather than individuals.

Amid such ignorance, colonial myths prevail and racial stereotypes flourish. As we confront our personal and collective prejudices the worst thing we can do, I believe, is to deny the very existence of prejudice. Luckily we live in a society that is steadily overcoming the ignorance and prejudices of the past.

“Prejudice may be the child of ignorance”, but tolerance and the “willingness to comprehend otherness” to quote my dear friend, the late Alan Paton, is the crown of the civilised society.

It was partly this insight which led to me warn about the potency of ethnicity during the Zuma trial earlier this year. At my party’s Annual General Conference I dismissed notions of an anti Zulu plot in the ruling-party’s succession race.

I deeply felt that it would be highly irresponsible if I did not issue the sober warning that these unsupported allegations would fan the flames of ethnic conflict.

One only needs to draw a wide arc across Africa, from 1994 Rwanda to the DRC to 2006 Darfur, to see the wretched human consequences spawned by ethnic entrepreneurialism.

During the violence that took place during the 80’s and 90’s between our political organisations, there were some who attempted to present the political conflict as an ethnic one: Zulu versus Xhosa. I have always roundly rejected ethnic mobilisation as being one of the primary reasons which ignited this complex conflict.

Yet, we can – and must be proud – of our constituent traditions. The Zulu, for example, are as much of a nation in South Africa as much as the English, Welsh, and Irish are in the United Kingdom.

So in 2007 let us respect and cherish all our constituent traditions. The celebration of our diverse cultures – unity in diversity – will strengthen our nation, not weaken it.

Yours sincerely,

Mangosuthu Buthelezi