The Politics of Culture in
Post-apartheid South Africa
Richard A. Wilson
Human rights are universal legal and moral categories of one Enlightenment political tradition, namely, liberalism. During the early modern period, writers such as John Locke and Thomas Hobbes asserted that natural rights were legal entitlements that all humans held by virtue of being human, irrespective of time and place. Human nature and natural law were discoverable through the application of a universal Reason, a view that came from Aristotle through Grotius and was consolidated in Kant and the still-influential neo-Kantian tradition.1 These ideas then became central in the dissolution of dynastic rule and the establishment of modern nation-states.
Contrary to the view that modernity has always been a single, integrated project, liberal ideals of rationalism and individualism came under immediate attack from the father of German Romanticism, Johann Herder (see Hann, this volume). In the late 1700s, Herder rejected Enlightenment principles and the Rights of Man in favor of a mystical attachment of each individual to his or her community. In the Romantic tradition,2 human rights are a fiction parading as fact, borne of a wrongly conceived human nature that is undermined by the really existing diversity of cultural practices and beliefs. Over the next three hundred years, this polarity crystallized into the familiar debate between French and Anglo-American Enlightenment universalists and their Romantic relativist opponents. Yet there is something wrong with this “clash-of-ideas” account as it is commonly presented, because it overaccentuates the formal incompatibilities between different political and intellectual traditions. The pervasiveness of this social philosophical dispute has often foreclosed more meaningful discussions about the