'Cultural diversity is actually something positive’

January 2005 -

What are the benefits of a multicultural society? In this time of political polarisation, is it still possible to say something positive about this sensitive topic? The Prince Claus Fund believes that it is possible, which is why it organised a forum on 2 December 2004, whose audience was enthusiastic, united and international. That evening, the key word was ‘respect’.

The immediate cause of the debate held in the atmospheric surroundings of Ottone, the former Remonstrant Church building on Kromme Nieuwegracht in Utrecht, was the publication of the 2004 UNDP report. In this annual survey, the UN sheds light on problems arising in connection with global and national development. The Japanese-American UN staff member Sakiko Fukada-Parr, principal author of the report, was asked to speak first.

She revealed that in many countries there is a worrying trend towards so-called 'identity politics', by which she means the emphasising of ethnic, racial, religious and cultural tensions, something that can have a polarising effect. ‘It is dangerous to do nothing but criticise, and to use such terms as ’we’ and ‘they’, says Fukada-Parr. This is why she attaches a great deal of importance to the right to cultural freedom, and prefers multiculturalism to a policy of assimilation.

‘Cultural diversity is actually something positive’, agrees Zayd Minty, who is a South African of Indian origin. As the curator of the District Six Museum in Cape Town, he looks at this issue a great deal. Minty is a great advocate of having open discussions, but at the same time underlines the importance of using carefully chosen and respectful language. ‘Everything is permitted as long as it is not offensive.’

Yvonne Adhiambo, Kenyan writer and director of the Zanzibar International Film Festival, feels that an additional problem is that these days people are living their lives without any real contact with each other. ‘Help your neighbour’, she tells her audience, who take her words to heart. ‘Get to know each other.’ She gives the Dutch audience members heart by telling them that she is hopeful that there will be a successful conclusion to the social uproar that there has been since the recent terrorist murder of the controversial filmmaker and publicist Theo van Gogh.

In her summing-up, Ms. Fukada-Parr noted that the policies pursued by such countries as South Africa, Canada and Malaysia embrace cultural diversity. ‘This should serve as an example to us all.’