Speech delivered by Adv Johan Kruger, director of the Centre for Constitutional Rights, during Paulus Jacobs Secondary School’s Heritage Day Celebrations on 24 September 2012 in Paarl

We have been commemorating Heritage Day since 1995 – a day upon which each South African celebrates his or her different culture, history and cultural history. It is also a day upon which we should commemorate not just our unique heritage, but also our shared inheritance.

One of the most valuable pieces of our shared inheritance – an inheritance that each of us must cherish and protect at all costs – is without a doubt our Constitution – the supreme law in South Africa. Our Constitution encapsulates and protects the values, rights and principles of the type of society we would like to be, but are struggling to become. All the obligations that are demanded by the Constitution must be met by each of us – no matter who we are – and any law or conduct that does not meet the Constitution’s requirements is invalid.

Although the Constitution is an inheritance in its own right, it is also, to a large extent, the testament containing all the rights and obligations – the rights each of us are entitled to, but also the duties and responsibilities to be met by each of us – which we inherit.

It is easy to page past the Preamble and Founding Provisions of the Constitution to Chapter 2 – the Bill of Rights – to claim our own rights. It is nonetheless the first few sentences of the Constitution’s Preamble and Founding Provisions (Chapter 1) that bequeath some of our greatest treasures to us: our country, South Africa – a sovereign and democratic state built on human dignity, equality, the advancement of human rights and freedom; a country that is built on non-racism and non-sexism; a country where the Constitution – not politicians, the Parliament or individuals – is the supreme authority; a country where everyone has the right to vote; and, above all, a country that belongs to all who reside in it. Our Constitution bequeaths South Africa as a shared inheritance to each of us – united in our diversity of language, culture and cultural history.

The Constitution acknowledges our differences and diversity and protects this diverse heritage accordingly. It is very clear in the Preamble, as well as in the Bill of Rights, that amongst other things, the freedom of religion, belief and opinion, the freedom of expression and the freedom of association, are protected. The Constitution’s recognition of our differences and diversity is surely best expressed in sections 30 and 31, which protect our various languages and cultures, and where the rights and obligations of different cultural, religious and linguistic communities are acknowledged and explained.

Section 30 stipulates that each of us has the right to use the language of our choice and to participate in a cultural life of our choice. Section 31 further stipulates that no-one belonging to a cultural, religious and linguistic community should:
a.    be denied the right to enjoy their culture with other members of that community, to practice their religion and use their language; and
b.    to form, join and maintain cultural, religious and linguistic associations and other organs of civil society.

However, both sections 30 and 31 make it clear that each person who exercises these rights must do so inclusive of the rights of others, as contained in the Bill of Rights. No-one may exercise his or her rights in a manner that restricts another’s rights as laid out in the Bill of Rights. Therefore we must protect and nurture our different heritage with the full appreciation that the same rights apply to those who speak other languages, enjoy other cultures and practice their religion in a different way.

In addition to other differences, the Constitution undoubtedly recognises the variety in our linguistic and cultural heritage and inheritance. It makes provision for us to claim our linguistic and cultural rights and that we, like today, can exercise our language and culture, not just as individuals, but also as communities and organisations.

Oliver Wendell Holmes said that language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow. Each person on earth cherishes the freedom of words, emotions, ideas and thoughts. The key to this freedom is language. Today we celebrate Heritage Day in Afrikaans – beyond the confines of colour and language. In fact, we celebrate Afrikaans – a right granted to us by our Constitution. For those of us that use Afrikaans, the right and privilege of freedom of words, emotions, ideas and thoughts is close to our hearts. Nelson Mandela once similarly remarked that when you speak to a person in a language that they understand, you speak to their head, but when you speak to that person in their own language, you speak to their heart. We must remember this – and not just with regard to Afrikaans, but all our other official languages.

Afrikaans is undoubtedly under pressure – in the business world, in our schools and universities, in our courts, in the civil service – everywhere in our everyday lives. Our Constitution recognises 11 official languages – including Afrikaans – and not only grants the right to those that speak each language to use that language, but also places the onus on government to promote and give equal recognition to all official languages.

The commemoration of Heritage Day therefore certainly does not just relate to the celebration of each of our distinct cultures, but particularly crossing all of our different linguistic and cultural boundaries. Language, and particularly Afrikaans, could in this instance play an important part in promoting national unity and reconciliation, and to building a nation that cherishes and respects our constitutional values, rights and obligations.

What can we do?
a.    Use Afrikaans. Use it in all its facets throughout society, no matter how you speak it. Afrikaans does not belong to anyone – it belongs to everyone. Afrikaans is colourful without colour and it is free of culture in its many cultures;
b.    Furthermore, everyone that speaks Afrikaans must insist on the rightful recognition of Afrikaans in South Africa and must claim that right within the framework of our Constitution; but
c.    We must at the same time also positively promote Afrikaans as an asset to our country, as a language of value for many – not just for mother tongue speakers, as a language of reconciliation – not just for all who speak it, but for each person that hears it, as a language that reaches out to others. The well-known author, JK Rowling, said that differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open.

In order to let our shared and similar heritage live on as an inheritance for future generations, we need to pursue the same goals and open our hearts to reconciliation. When we claim our inheritance – when we use Afrikaans, when we ask for it to be recognised and when we share Afrikaans with others as a language of reconciliation – we must first understand and act upon our rights and obligations as laid out in our Constitution. Secondly, we must realise that we cannot embrace our heritage – whether it is a language, culture or any other heritage – at the expense of the rights of another. Our Constitution demands that we exercise our rights in a balanced way – therefore we must consider the rights of others. Lastly, we must embrace our heritage for the benefit of all who live in South Africa. In this way our unique heritage – our language and our exceptional respective cultures – becomes an inheritance that everyone can share, an inheritance that forever unites all who live in South Africa in their difference and diversity.

About Wilhelm Weber

Pastor at the Old Latin School in the Lutherstadt Wittenberg
This entry was posted in Politics, philosophy and other perspectives. Bookmark the permalink.

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