Is it possible that we in South Africa take our freedom for granted?

Is it possible that we in South Africa take our freedom for granted? I couldn’t help asking myself this unthinkable question as I sat in plenary sessions of the 2016 International Parliamentarians’ Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief.


Over three days in Berlin last month, Members of Parliament from countries throughout the world sought ways to protect and promote what we all agreed was an embattled right.

Coming from South Africa, where our Constitution enshrines the right to freedom of religion, belief and opinion, it was eye-opening for me to hear the heartfelt plea of delegations from countries where the right to religious freedom is not entrenched. We tend to think of freedom only in terms of politics. But religious freedom should command our attention.

In terms of Article 18 of the UN Universal Declaration for Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion… including freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom either alone or in community… to manifest his religion… in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Yet still, governments in places like Eritrea, Pakistan, Sudan, Vietnam and Myanmar, have not embraced the right to religious freedom. Indeed 75% of the world’s population live in areas were religious freedom is limited. Should we in South Africa be concerned?

Absolutely; South Africa’s Constitution, and our alignment with the Universal Declaration for Human Rights, bestows on our country’s leaders a responsibility to promote and protect religious freedoms, not only in South Africa, but throughout the world. The aphorism holds true that an attack on freedom anywhere, is an attack on freedom everywhere.

Therefore, acting on behalf of the IFP, I signed several advocacy letters during the conference in Berlin, addressed to various government leaders. These letters seek the release, among others, of Aasia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who was sentenced to death for blasphemy; Paulos Eyassu, Isaac Mogos, and Negede Teklemariam, who have been held in detention for 20 years for conscientious objection to military service; and the 80 year old Abul Shukoor who was sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment for selling books on the Ahmadi Muslim faith.

It is disheartening to know that people throughout the world regularly face discrimination, persecution and death because of their faith. Worse still is that those who kill in the name of religion use a system of beliefs as justification, and commit their criminal acts with impunity. In the fight against extremism, which is causing so much devastation, freedom of religion is our most powerful weapon.

To focus South Africa’s attention on this aspect of freedom, the IFP has proposed a parliamentary forum to deal with issues around religious tolerance. We did this in the National Assembly last week to mark International Religious Freedom Day. We know that we cannot be complacent simply because this freedom is legally protected in South Africa.

There are still evident tensions within our communities over the different ways people express their faith. Ours is a melting pot of multi-culturalism. There are vast differences between the Khoisan, African, Eastern and Western ways of life, all of which find a place in our country. Not surprisingly, the Constitutional Court has been asked to rule on controversial issues like braided hair, the wearing of the red string, and nose rings.

This may not be on the same level as persecution in other countries, but it speaks of tensions between our people and has an impact on the expression of our commitment to tolerance and equality.

When tensions rise, the incidence of hate speech increases, which fuels both racism and xenophobia on a deeper level. We must therefore deal with the tensions between our various cultures that are precipitated by religious diversity.

To take a concrete example, one could look at the different ways South Africans deal with death. From a Western perspective, grieving is largely private following a funeral service. Thus a bereaved individual will take one or two days off work. But in African and Eastern cultures, there are rituals that must be performed which demand a longer period of time away from the routines of life. In a multi-cultural working environment, misunderstandings and resentment can easily arise.

This is why it is so important for us to reach outside our own experience and learn about each other’s culture, religion and beliefs. We need a better and more comprehensive understanding which can only be obtained by talking to each other, listening without judgment, and sharing – without prejudice – our own perspective. That is the basis of tolerance.

I often encourage people to attend the festivals and events of people outside their own culture, so that we can understand why people do what they do, wear what they wear, and believe what they believe. When we gain that greater understanding, respect follows. And when we respect one another, it is simple to live out the universal value of all faiths, which is service to others.

Mr. Narend Singh was born and raised in Umkomaas on the South Coast of KwaZulu-Natal. He obtained a post-graduate diploma in Economic Principles through the University of London in 1998 and completed an MSc in Public Policy and Management, at the University of London end of 2013. In 1989 he was elected as a Member of Parliament in the House of Delegates until 1994. Other Parliamentary Portfolios include: Senator; Chief Whip; various portfolio committees; Leader of the House, KZN Legislature.

Provincial Minister Portfolios in KZN Government:

  1. Agriculture and Leader of Government Business (1996 to 1997)

  2. Agriculture and Housing (1997 to 1999)

  3. Agriculture and Environmental Affairs (1999 to 2003)

  4. Education and Culture (2003 to 2004)

  5. Arts, Culture and Tourism (2004 to 2006)

In 2007 he was sworn in as a Member of Parliament in the National Assembly, Cape Town.

He has served on the Finance Committee, Standing Committee on Public Accounts and Standing Committee on Appropriations in the National Assembly. He has been elected as the Chief Whip of the IFP for the 5th Parliament and currently serves on the Public Enterprises Portfolio Committee and various other Parliamentary Committees. He is a member of the Judicial Services Commission.

He is a member of the National Executive Committee of the Inkatha Freedom Party, the Treasurer General and the Chairperson of the National Campaign Committee of the Party.

OpinionNarend Singh