Beyond Racism: Embracing an Interdependent Future
Brazil, South Africa, and the United States

Cape Town, South Africa 

May 29, 2000

Ms Huntley and Professor James
Distinguished Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen

The twenty-first century opens with frequent references, from a growing number of quarters, to the ideal of and need for an African Renaissance. In some ways this is a sobering reminder of how much we still labour under the effects of the malaise of our past. Much as the call for an African Renaissance is an uplifting and forward looking clarion call, it is founded on the realisation that in a world of gross inequality Africa and her people still suffer the most.

The reference to a Renaissance cannot but recall the European Renaissance, which saw as one of its great achievements the expansion of European influence and dominance across the entire planet. Colonialism, with its strong racial basis of identification, discrimination and social practice, was a major outflow of that earlier Renaissance. The call for an African Renaissance stems from the need to at last move beyond the deeply abiding racial structures, practices and attitudes that emanated so powerfully from the planet wide expansion of the European Renaissance.

That we still have to make battle with racism in its many forms and manifestations here at the beginning of the third millennium, is a serious indictment against our capacity to use progress for the common good. The last two centuries have witnessed unprecedented advances, yet much of humanity seems to have escaped the major benefits of those advances.

The great philosophies of the nineteenth and twentieth century had radically altered our views on the human condition, freedom and social equality. Science and technology progressed in ways and measures exceeding the cumulative results of all preceding ages, yielding nature and its resources accessible for human advancement. Communications and information technology made of the world a tangibly smaller place where the woes of one could not escape the attention of the other. Multilateral international bodies had been established to address the needs and concerns of all humankind on the basis of the equality of nations and peoples. The economy of the world has become one inter-dependent enterprise in which barriers of trade have fallen and markets are rendered accessible to all.

In such a world, and after two centuries of such dramatic and spectacular progress, the divide between the poor and the rich, the powerful and the marginalised that continue to exist - and in fact, to widen - puts to serious question the nature and quality of our humanity. That these inequities - amongst nations and within single nations - still correlate so strongly to racial differences, demeans us all. One of our distinguishing characteristics as human beings is our capacity to show compassion and through our reason to rise above differences. That we have, after these centuries of deepened reflection, greater global interaction and joint international activity, not eradicated the scourge of racism, stands as one of our greatest failings.

The Comparative Human Relations Initiative, the report of which is being launched tonight and in conference this week, is therefore of much, much more than so-called academic interest.

We have in the international politics of the twentieth century grown so used to the concept of politics as the art of the possible that it has become almost unfashionable to speak of politics and morality. In much of the thinking about and assessment of politics, the effective exercise of power became a goal in itself without any explicit reference to moral objectives.

The Comparative Human Relations Initiative, in examining power relations as the use of racial characteristics to confer privilege and disadvantage respectively, again places politics squarely within the moral domain. The comparative nature of this examination, encompassing Brazil, the United States of America and South Africa, generalises the moral challenge beyond the failings of one nation or group of people. These three countries have different histories and their economies are of different scales and stages of development. That each of them still struggle with the legacy and continuing reality of racism, emphasises the moral challenge to our common humanity.

Our philosophies of human freedom and equality are being mocked while human beings are still assigned to inferior stations in life on the basis of race and colour. The idea of a globalised world becomes a perversion if most of the world - and particularly countries inhabited by people of colour - continue to languish in poverty, their economic development retarded rather than advanced by globalisation. Democracy is being put at risk if we do not take shared responsibility in the world for the eradication of poverty and deprivation, conditions that continue to pertain in disproportionate measure to people of colour all over the world. Multilateralism is seriously undermined where powerful countries of the North treat with disdain the democratic rights of others in international bodies. The vestiges of a past strongly fashioned on racial lines, manifest themselves in many ways, places and forms. It is the duty of and to the ultimate benefit of us all, to make common cause in the human struggle to move beyond racism.

We, South Africans, acknowledge our special responsibility in this regard. Our country was for most of the latter part of the twentieth century, the embodiment of structured racial rule in the world. While colonial rule came to an end all over the planet and the world reacted in horror to the racial excesses of the Holocaust, our country moved stubbornly and defiantly towards the official consolidation of racism.

Apartheid was recognised and declared a crime against humanity. The experiences of suffering, humiliation and dehumanisation of black people, as well as the degradation of those who perpetrated the iniquities of the system, are sometimes beyond telling. Our Truth and Reconciliation Commission has done great work in giving voice to some of these experiences, giving us a glimpse into the suffering and horrors of our past. It has served to sharpen our awareness of humankind's capacity for inhumanity to each other. And it has sought to deepen our resolve never again to allow race and colour to direct our conduct in such destructive and dehumanising ways.

That we succeeded in resolving our political conflict through peaceful cross-racial negotiations and establish through joint consent a non-racial democracy, is in many respects the achievement of the entire international community. Apartheid itself was a late expression and development of our colonial history, and that racial rule could be allowed to flower in South Africa after the horrors of the Second World War owes a lot to the acquiescence of the powerful countries of the West. In the end, though, it was the growing international support for the anti-apartheid liberation struggle that contributed very significantly to our success.

The peaceful nature of our transition, where many had expected and predicted a bloody racial war and the destruction of the country, led to us often being referred to as a miracle nation. That miracle, we realise, now needs to be consolidated through the development of all our people, undoing the racial inequalities of our past. We owe it to the world, both in recognition of their contribution to our struggle and as an obligation not to fail the hopes held for us, to eradicate racism and to build a non-racial future for our children.

We have a long way to go as the attitudes and mindsets ingrained over decades and centuries of racial and colonial rule cannot be expected to disappear overnight. It will require the combined efforts of all our people and institutions. At the same time, we South Africans cannot and should not under-estimate the enormous progress we have already made in this regard. That so many South Africans from all backgrounds have already taken the step towards constructively and co-operatively working for a common nationhood, underscores the fact that changed circumstances and opportunities help to fashion new attitudes and practices. Human beings need not be the prisoners of old attitudes.

This Comparative Human Relations Initiative could not have come at a more appropriate time for us here in South Africa, and for the world, we believe. It confronts us with the challenge of facing this scourge of racism and it equips us to understand the phenomenon. We shall later in this year be holding a national conference on racism in preparation for an international conference under the auspices of the United Nations to be hosted here next year. The work of this Initiative is an important contribution also to our national preparations and debates.

It is my great privilege to now officially launch the Report of the Comparative Human Relations Initiative. It is our wish that this work and that which flows from it will contribute to us at last having a Renaissance that will emancipate all of humanity from the demeaning social phenomenon of racism.

I thank you.

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