South African activist raises questions on multiculturalism

Document Type

Media Release

Publication Date

Fall 22-3-2006

Publisher Name

The University of Notre Dame, Fremantle

Publication Place



The University of Notre Dame Australia recently hosted the 2006 Vice Chancellors’ Oration, and was honoured to welcome renowned South African activist and politician, Dr Frene Ginwala, as the orator.

The annual event, organised in conjunction with the Office of Multicultural Interests, rotates around the five Western Australian universities and is held every year on the 21st of March to acknowledge the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. It also marks the end of Harmony Week – a week which recognises the need to respect cultural differences while at the same time focusing on what unites us as Western Australians.

More than 400 people came to hear Dr Ginwala speak about the defining moments in her country’s history, the similarities between Australia and South Africa and what she has seen and learnt about Australia through the “eyes of a South African”…and given Dr Ginwala’s past, they are definitely eyes of experience.

Dr Ginwala was an active member of the African National Congress and has earned great respect as a voice for social justice. She was instrumental in arranging the escape of the former ANC President, the late Oliver Tambo, and Nelson Mandela, and spent 30 years in exile in Britain. She has also been widely published on anti-apartheid and gender issues.

After being introduced by Professor John Wood, Deputy Vice Chancellor of Edith Cowan University, Dr Ginwala began the oration by saying she was appreciative of the opportunity to speak in Western Australia as we “try to grapple with problems of cultural and religious diversity and the establishment of a common society based on the commitment to human rights. It is a problem which challenges many countries today.”

Early on she made the point that she was not here to offer solutions, rather to “discuss and explain how we as South Africans found our way through the many theories about race culture and whether uniformity was a necessary pre-requisite for social cohesion.”

Using examples such as her active role in the drawing up of the ANC’s “interim” Constitution she illustrated how “a great deal of heart searching, compromise and creativity” is required when facing the uphill challenge of “shaping an inclusive society”.

After describing South Africa’s long journey towards a “shared destiny”, Dr Ginwala then posed two questions to the audience:

“Does Australia want a multicultural society?”
Dr Ginwala said she suspected “some do, and some don’t”. She described racism as isolating yourself from your neighbours and only mingling with people from your own race or culture, illustrating why she thinks many Australians do not want a multicultural society. On the other hand she said the challenge for those who do is to shift the balance in their favour.

Is there a political will in the Australian Government to combat racism?”
Citing examples such as the Tampa crisis, detention centres and the Cronulla race riots, Dr Ginwala said “to be racially tolerant means to be tolerant of racial differences, not tolerant of racism.”

She also made the point that “if a society excludes the experience of more than half of the population (women), or that of the many groups that are marginalised, how can we expect that we will develop and implement policies that will provide solutions the meet the needs of the entire society?”

The Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Interests, The Hon Margaret Quirk, in moving the vote of thanks, raised the issue of “the new form of racism” happening in Australia. She described overt racism as giving way to a more subtle form of racism which is far harder to detect.

Dr Ginwala also agreed with this concept saying that in South Africa’s history “the overt expression of the old forms of racism gave way to the assertion of cultural differences among people, which were allegedly rigid, absolute and incompatible. This currently poses one of the major challenges to many of us.”

Other highlights of the event included Mr Kim Collard’s Welcome to Country, the presentation of the the prestigious Premier’s Multicultural Ambassador Award to joint winners, Assoc. Prof Colleen Hayward and Mrs Rosemary Hudson Miller, and the announcement of the new Sir Ronald Wilson Leadership Award for 2007.

(Media Contact: Michelle Ebbs 08 9433 0610, 0408 959 138)