Striving for equality in a diverse world


KUALA LUMPUR: It is perhaps imprudent to heap too much praise on any politician nowadays. Not even on those who clinched the Nobel Peace Prize. Barack Obama was awarded the coveted prize early in his presidency. Yet, under his watch, America continued to be embroiled in many wars around the world. The prime minister of Ethiopia was also an awardee for having concluded a peace settlement with neighboring Eritrea. Yet, barely a few months later, he launched attacks on rebel forces within the country, ironically in collaboration with Eritrea; thus precipitating another round of civil war.

That is perhaps why, given a choice, I always prefer to write of prominent personalities posthumously such that some degree of finality could perhaps be proffered. But then again, even the historical legacy of a politician can often be controversial and does not lend itself to authoritative categorization.

That was certainly the case with F. W. de Klerk, whose passing I wrote of last week. To some, de Klerk was viewed disdainfully as the last president of the almost universally despised white, apartheid South Africa. To others he was the bold peacemaker who reached out to the revered Nelson Mandela, the symbol of anti-apartheid struggle, and arranged a peaceful transition to black majority rule. De Klerk thus shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela. Perhaps many would agree that his positive contribution to peaceful coexistence of blacks and whites in South Africa makes him deserving of the prize as Mandela’s co-equal.

Apartheid, which institutionalized segregation and practically unequal treatment among races, was particularly egregious in South Africa, as it privileged the white minority against the summarily mistreated, mainly black majority. A racially defined minority lording over another racially defined majority almost always carries a negative connotation, as it runs against the grain of modern democratic tradition.

But how about if the tables were to be reversed, and it is the turn of the racially defined majority who is in the upper hand to reign superior over the racially defined minority? I frankly am not sure if that is what is going on in South Africa. It would appear that there are many politico-tribal factions within the black majority, and at least during the initial days of post-apartheid South Africa, some of these factions were reported to be close to warring with each other to vie for socio-political dominance over one another. Even Mandela was not without his detractors from some of the major black tribes. But still, he died a champion and a symbol of racial equality.

Well, is the white minority in South Africa being in turn discriminated against nowadays? A cursory examination of the political and socioeconomic landscape does not immediately exude so. The official opposition leader in parliament is white. Whites still feature prominently in South Africa’s businesses and professions. And there was no massive white exodus, as was the case in neighboring Zimbabwe, where the late president Robert Mugabe carried out a campaign of often violent and almost indiscriminate confiscation of white-owned properties, supposedly to be redistributed to indigent black farmers but in reality often gobbled up by his associates and supporters. Whites thus exited Zimbabwe in massive droves. Ironically, my first and only glimpse of Mugabe was when he was invited to a global peace forum in Kuala Lumpur, where he spoke effusively of solidarity among the developing countries, seemingly oblivious of the high level of political and socioeconomic sufferings back home. Unfortunately for Mugabe but perhaps fortunately for the rest of the world, Mugabe was not awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, although he too was a freedom fighter in his younger years. Some politicians changed or compromised once they were thrust into positions of power.

Around the time when South Africa transitioned into black majority rule and Mugabe initiated the officially inspired if not sanctioned grabs of white-owned farms, there were rumblings in other multiracial corners of the world. Not far up north, the majority Hutus were slaughtering the minority Tutsis in Rwanda in what has come to known as one of the worst cases of genocide in modern times. The speed and scale of the killings stunned the world, but the international community largely stood by without much concrete action. It must have been a traumatic experience for the survivors of the Rwandan genocide, and it is a miracle that a quarter century on, the country has evolved into one of the most developed on the African continent.

Further north and leaving Africa, the Balkan peninsula was then also engulfed in a series of civil wars around that time which saw the fortunes of multiracial societies around the world moving back and forth. The former Yugoslavia was a federated state, with a number of constituent republics each typically made up of dominant majority as well as other minority ethnic groups. When Yugoslavia was under ironclad communist rule, the ideological strength of the centralized state held together these various ethnic groups more or less in peace and equality. When Yugoslavia collapsed in the early 1990s following the wave of communist regimes tumbling one after another, the constituent republics became jubilantly independent initially. Soon the ugly head of racial supremacy rose, as the various ethnic groups in almost all of these former Yugoslav republics started to violently clash with each other. Unspeakable acts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity ensued, right next door to what was supposed to be liberal democratic Europe. The international community did intervene this time around, both militarily as a warning to cease conflicts, and in brokering the somewhat fragile and always complicated peace settlements.

Countless unfortunate racial and ethnic confrontations abound around the world, from South Asia to South America. The main lesson to be gleaned from all these unfortunate, often lethal incidents is perhaps that rabid racism should be condemned and opposed in all its forms. It should not matter whether the racially supremacist oppressors and the haplessly oppressed are in the majority or minority of the population. All men and women are created equal and humanity should uphold nothing less than this basic principle of human rights.

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Publish date : 2021-11-23 13:54:15

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