Living a fulfilling life has many facets. One needs to have a reasonable level of intellectual stimulation, emotional capacity and connection, a strong moral compass and even a sense of service to humanity. These facets allow one to develop oneself and consequently society.
However, each person is part of a collective and thus the ratio of these aspects differ from person to person. People are often shaped by their upbringing and socialisation, which in turn is often a result of their culture or heritage. On World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development, we should focus on promoting our different cultures and highlight the significance of diversity as an agent of inclusion and positive change.
As we reflect on this day and embrace the diversity of cultural expression, we must focus on how these differences contribute to dialogue and discussion, mutual understanding, and the social, environmental and economic principles of sustainable development. Advancing and bridging the gap between cultures is critical and necessary for peace, stability and development, particularly as we collectively face the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Respect for diversity is one of the University of Pretoria’s navigational markers, and it can only be achieved if we are a community that is welcoming to all nations, races, genders and sexualities. South Africa is a unique country, with eleven official languages and sign language set to become the twelfth. Along with these languages comes a myriad of cultures within the SA community. In our context, respect for diversity in the work environment becomes imperative so that there can be understanding and tolerance of actions by others that may not be aligned with our own known cultures. We value diversity, and aim to be inclusive by addressing our institutional culture and co-creating a new institutional culture through our ongoing transformation programmes. Through consistent dialogue we can diversify our thinking and views and aim to be even more inclusive and more progressive in terms of diversity.
During the national lockdown, many people have taken to social media out of boredom and perhaps even for inspiration for things to do at home. Social media has provided many people with a chance to explore other cultures through food. Perhaps, for some, it is a learning measure and for others it fulfils their curiosity. It could even be the start of a new way of learning about other cultures, histories and heritages. I hope that this immersion into other cultures is a way in which social media can transform our natural curiosity into a real learning experience.
Social media also plays a crucial role in promoting diversity, by providing a platform for representation and opportunities for different voices to speak to a wider audience. These platforms give us the opportunity to represent ourselves and our diverse cultures as we’d like to be seen by others. In fact, everyone who finds a home in Africa should be critical of the media that we consume, especially with regard to the new cultural practices which the youth are consuming, for example memes and various popular challenges on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and TikTok. Perhaps, instead of just following what the rest of the world is doing, maybe we should adapt our use of these platforms to highlight and showcase the beauty of our cultures, landscapes and people. Let us also contribute by sharing the pride that we have in being from Africa with a wider, global audience. So instead of us simply copying social media challenges, we can set trends for the rest of the world and encourage learning about African cultures and Africans.
The internet has made travel accessible to a wider variety of people, and while travel might not be allowed for the foreseeable future owing to COVID-19, we can “travel” to many countries and learn about their cultures through the internet. The experience of learning about other people, their histories, heritage and culture is far more important (and affordable). Cultural traditions such as cuisine, music, language and rites of passage are largely what separates people into tribes, but the values and humaneness which all cultures teach unite us. By engaging with different cultures, we will expand our own horizons and consequently those of our family and friends, causing a ripple effect on society as a whole. In the process, we will discover that it does not matter how “foreign” or different to us a particular culture may seem; in essence we are all the same. Every culture or moral heritage teaches us all the same basic tenets of doing well for others and being a good person.
Understanding this universal truth is key to unlocking some of the world’s most serious conflicts, as well as bringing about a sense of cultural evolution in our society. Once we start viewing all people as having merit and worth equal to our own, we start to respect diverse beliefs and cultures from the basis of understanding the underlying humanity in us all. Perhaps then we will finally find agreement on the devastating effects that war, invasion, violent colonialism and neo-imperialism have had on many countries and groups of people.
I am not advocating for a globalised (mostly American) culture, which has recently dominated the world. What I am advocating for is a clear appreciation of all cultures from across the globe, with cognisance of the good that these disparate cultures teach us. Thus we may see ourselves as part of the global whole, and indeed grow as a society by building onto the ubuntu that may be African in name, but is at the heart of all of humanity.
There cannot be sustainable development without appreciation of diversity and the importance of cultural exchange and influences. Dialogue around the diversity of human cultures is a solid basis for sustained and sustainable development which brings out the best in humanity.
It is our duty as global citizens to constantly seek knowledge about people who are seemingly different to us, so that we can learn tolerance, empathy, humaneness and higher philosophical ideals from around the world. This knowledge enriches our own thinking, cultural awareness and creativity, creating a positive impact on our own development. Treating all people with respect and kindness, and continuously learning and integrating new knowledge, is THE UP WAY.
Professor Tawana Kupe is Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria. He is a professor in Media Studies and Literature. World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development is commemorated annually on 21 May.