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Unity in Diversity

Unity in diversity is the motto on the National Coat of Arms that is drawn from the /Xam expression !ke e: /xarra // ke which literally means diverse people unite. It is a call to all citizens to unite in a sense of belonging and pride.

– Department of Arts and Culture, Republic of South Africa

United in diversity has been incorporated into the preamble of the 1996 Constitution of South Africa, with it being a foundational principle of post-Apartheid South Africa. Interestingly enough, ‘unity in diversity’ was first introduced to the South African context when the Apartheid regime celebrated 20 years of independence on the 31st of May 1981, it was utilised by the regime to ‘explain away the inequalities’ that that existed at the time. Today, it speaks to all the different peoples of South Africa uniting under one banner to claim the country as their own.

Jumping a few decades ahead, we as the SAWIP 2017 cohort find ourselves on the other side of the ocean, thinking about diversity once again, but this time on different shores. On Friday the 24th of July 2017, the Center for American Progress hosted SAWIP, the Washington Ireland Program, and the New Story Leadership. SAWIP and WIP each had two speakers on the floor speaking on ‘A Global Perspective on Diversity and Inclusion’. Interestingly enough, there was a great deal of diversity even in the understanding of diversity, some panelists spoke to their own experience of being understood as diverse or different, whilst others spoke to the causes of diversity and difference in a particular society, and how it is and was managed. The dominant contexts that were discussed was that of being mixed race in Northern Ireland, being a queer Black woman in South Africa, being a Traveller in the Republic of Ireland, and a picture was painted of the contextual dynamics of difference in South Africa, and the movements that have pushed back against the hegemonic ideals often understood to have poorly managed difference.

However, an interesting, albeit controversial, question was raised arguing that the panelists did not answer the question – ‘what is diversity?’, the person who asked the question further argued that none of the panelists spoke to the structural causes of the mismanagement of diversity.  This was not their task, their task was to provide their experience and understanding of diversity, and they did just that. They spoke to the inability of people and states to manage difference, and how being different could have harmful consequences if you were not a part of either the hegemonic group. Further, he asked the panel, how do they foresee the dismantling of the system (i.e. the system that upholds racism and/or patriarchy and structural violence against groups outside of the accepted paradigm). This is a difficult question to answer, and I do not think that there is an easy one, but many of the sessions we had over the last two weeks in Washington D.C. provided key solutions.

  1. Advocate for the civil rights of others even if they are not your own.
  2. Have radical love for yourself, and for others.
  3. Radical love does not mean you have to side-step oppression, it means loving yourself enough to get up and do something.
  4. Do not watch the fire from the hill, rather, understand the causes of the fire and find a solution to it.
  5. Fighting for equality comes with self-sacrifice, and not everyone has the privilege and ability to push back, but it does not mean that their hearts are not in it.
  6. Everyone is learning, and we all need to remember that at some point, we didn’t know what we know now.
  7. Consciousness is a journey.
  8. Last, have openness in thought. The debate of ideas is healthy and should be encouraged.

Someone else had asked another interesting question, what are the limitations of using the lived experience as means to politically engage. He cited Afriforum, who genuinely believe and understand what they are experiencing as minority oppression and racism, without fitting it into the broader South African context. Using the lived experience as the only guide to engagement has its pitfalls, we need to be able to transcend our own experiences and understand that of others. I think what we need is radical empathy. Audre Lorde said, “There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” While we remained locally engaged, we must remain globally connected. That is my little bit of advice to South Africans, including myself. Often we can become consumed with our own context, without understanding the identity and experiences of the other. This is not to say that we must not allow our identity and experiences to inform our beliefs, but we need to do so with the spirit of open-mindedness. We do not always need to have comparative value, sometimes we just need to experience and understand something for what it is.

Experience local, think global.