Six billion unheard voices

September 28, 2001

Whatever its failings, the racism conference in Durban should at least teach us to listen.

Anybody who followed the proceedings of the Durban World Conference on racism was given serious cause to reflect on the events that took place there. Its very title gave due notice that it was unlikely to be an event where agreement would be easily reached. Many people have been outraged, angry, disappointed, hurt and exasperated by some of the incidents that took place. It is important that none of us turn our faces away from what we heard, nor indeed that any of us believe that somehow this has nothing to do with us as individuals. In particular, it seems that those of us involved in education should pay special attention.

Most moving of all the events was the forum arranged for personal "voices" to be heard. We heard from individuals their stories of misery and gross abuse of human rights. We heard from refugees, from women and from children; we heard one sad, sad tale after another. Over just a few days we heard tell of almost every horror that one human being can inflict on another. If we did truly hear and truly listen to these voices, then perhaps the conference achieved one important goal. For these are people who are not often given, and perhaps have never before been given, a voice in quite this way.

In the words of our own Archbishop Desmond Tutu: "There are millions of people out there who are hurting. These people look to this conference as a beacon of hope." It seems to me that a special responsibility rests here with the educators. Unesco's 1998 higher education conference and the resolutions taken there are important reminders for those of us in higher education. We affirmed the principles of the charter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and that we were "aware that on the threshold of a new millennium it is the duty of higher education to ensure that the values and ideals of a culture of peace prevail and that the intellectual community should be mobilising to that end", and then resolved that it is part of our mission to "provide opportunities for higher learning and for learning throughout life".

There is no doubt that the people gathered in Paris saw higher education playing an active role in attempting to solve the manifold misery of the sort we heard of in Durban. We should give some thought to what we have done - individually and as institutions - to implement our fine words of 1988 and what we could say to the people who gathered in Durban that might sustain their hopes.

In April, the Association of Commonwealth Universities published Engagement as a Core Value for the University , a consultation document that seems to me to indicate that at least some universities are taking these responsibilities seriously. The paper attempts to assist policy-makers and academics to work through the issues involved in the important and difficult task of "engagement".

It is incumbent on us all to share our successes and failures so that we represent a beacon of hope for the poor and disenfranchised and that we are able to say that we embraced the task set down by Unesco, and that the students leaving our universities will be leaders and citizens of a world made different by them and what they learnt to understand through our efforts.

Changing a university to undertake these tasks is no easy matter, as anyone who has tried it will attest. There is a growing literature on "change management" with which academics are likely to be irritated at best and contemptuous at worst. This kind of change, which involves curricula, choices and priorities, is likely to strike at the very core of a university's value system and beliefs.

It is no accident that the people gathered in Durban could not agree on a whole range of issues. It is also often the case that individuals working in educational institutions in multicultural societies are aware of the need for change, but, in the interests of a peaceful institution, the debates that are so difficult are often shelved for another day. The conference reminded us that that day has come.

If not enough of us were listening, the horrific events in New York and Washington surely also tell us that the world is not at all what it seems. The terrorists, the extremists, the people in the streets of Washington, Seattle, Genoa and Gothenburg - unacceptable and repugnant as some of their tactics are - are all telling us the same thing. The day has come for some difficult debates about what it means to be part of the human race and to share a common humanity. As one sloganeer so aptly said in Genoa: "You are G8, we are 6 billion." Apart from the moral imperatives, this is not an issue that will go away.

Nelson Mandela evoked the real possibilities of people all over the world caring for each other. "No one is born hating," he said. "People must learn to hate - if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love." Let us make sure that the conference, painful as it was, was not held in vain and that universities provide the intellectual leadership important to such an endeavour.

Brenda Gourley is vice-chancellor of the University of Natal and vice-chancellor elect of the Open University.

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