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SPEECH: CONSTITUTIONS, DEMOCRACY AND HUMAN RIGHTS - THE RIGHT SIDE OF HISTORY

dws2016

It is a great pleasure for me to visit Quinnipiac University.

I first met Professor David Ives several years ago at one of the annual Summits of Nobel Peace Prize Laureates.  Over the years we became firm friends.  Each time I met David he told me about Quinnipiac - and each time I listened to him I told him how much I would like to visit his university.

And now at last I am here.

I want to share with you tonight not only the story about how my country, South Africa, has become a much better place during the past 27 years - but also about how developments in my country have been rooted in a global process that has resulted in a world that, since the end of the Second World War, has also become an immeasurably better for billions of people.

In times of deepening national and international concerns it is very easy to forget about the enormous progress that we have made since World War II.

We seldom stop to think how radically the world has improved since the beginning of the 20th century: it is not only the material conditions in which we live that have changed out of all recognition, but perhaps, more significantly, many of our core values and social attitudes.

At the beginning of the 20th century Europeans still believed that they had a divine - or perhaps a Darwinian - right to rule distant peoples in Africa, Asia and the Americas. They thought they had a special calling to bring civilization and Christianity to what they dismissively regarded as “lesser peoples”.  This was despite the fact that some of these peoples - particularly in Asia - had glittering civilisations that far outshone anything in Europe before the 18th century.  

As always, the expression of noble motives often masked naked exploitation.  The litany is long and shameful - from the decimation of the native peoples of the Americas; to the slave trade; to the Opium Wars; to the extermination of the entire aboriginal population of Tasmania; and the awful depredations of Leopold II in the Congo.

Before the First World War many people still thought that war was a worthy national pursuit - and that it tested the moral and physical strength of nations.

Racial, gender and class discrimination were regarded as natural and acceptable facets of relationships between human beings.  

  • It was the era of ‘Jim Crow’ in the United States in terms of which black Americans were subjected to rigid racial segregation in every aspect of their lives.
  • Women - who had not yet been given the vote - experienced extreme discrimination in their personal and professional lives.
  • Oscar Wilde landed in Reading Jail.
  • European nations were still riddled with class distinctions manifested in the rigid stratification of society - which strangely enough we now enjoy revisiting in TV series such as Downton Abbey.

After World War II attitudes toward imperialism and race began to change quite radically.  A number of factors were involved:

  • There was universal revulsion at the racial ideology of the Nazis and Japanese that had led to some of the worst atrocities in human history;
  • European powers were exhausted and wanted to concentrate their limited resources on rebuilding their economies - rather than on retaining distant, troublesome and unprofitable colonies;
  • The United States, the emergent super power, had made it clear in the Atlantic Charter that it wanted Europe to dismantle its colonial empires.

The value systems that western societies had long professed began to catch up with them:

  • John Locke’s assertion that all mankind were “equal and independent” and Josiah Wedgwood’s slogan against slavery “Am I not a Man and A Brother” began to permeate British attitudes and raised doubts regarding the morality of subjugating “men and brothers” of colour in Britain’s vast empire. 
  • In 1776 the founders of the United States declared that they held “these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”   
  • The central themes of the Declaration of Independence were subsequently adopted by French revolutionaries in their resounding call for “Liberte, Egalite et Fraternite”.  

Despite the continuation of slavery in the United States and the expansion of the British and French Empires during the 19th century, these resounding affirmations of equality had been spliced into the DNA of Western civilization.

Speech by Dave Steward: Chairman, FW de Klerk Foundation
21 September 2017

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