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Race Discrimination Commissioner, Mr Chin Tan, on Nelson Mandela Day

Race Discrimination


Thank you for the very kind welcome. May I extend particular thanks to the Nelson Mandela Day Commemorative Committee (NMDCC) for the invitation and for having me here this evening.

Let me start by acknowledging the traditional custodians of this land where we gather tonight, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.

I would also like to thank Dr Rametse and his team for their amazing work organising this important event. I know through numerous communications with my office, they have worked tirelessly to make this event come together tonight.

I would especially like to recognise the remarkable work the NMDCC does establishing and bringing together communities; local, state and federal government and non-government agencies in Victoria in a range of activities to not only honour and celebrate Nelson Mandela’s legacy, but also to answer the global call to action to remind each and every one of us of the power that we have to affect positive change in the world.

I am very honoured to be the guest speaker at this International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (IDERD) event.

We cannot let the day pass without reflecting on the horrific tragedy in Christchurch. Many of us would be left with the shock and enormous sorrow at the loss of so many innocent lives last Friday.

I want to again offer my sincere condolences and deepest sympathies to the victims and the families in Christchurch. The community there will need much support and comfort in the days, weeks and months ahead. I and the Commission stand in unity, solidarity and in grief with them and the people of New Zealand and with the Muslim and wider community here in Australia.

At the Commission’s meeting on 21 March, I moved a motion to express our sorrow and solidarity, which the Commission adopted: 

Commissioner Tan proposed a special motion to honour and remember the victims of the recent terror attack in Christchurch, New Zealand.  Commissioner Tan spoke for the Commission as a whole in expressing its deep condolences to those affected. The Commission stands in solidarity and unity with the Muslim community and wider community in New Zealand and Australia, and remains resolutely committed to upholding the values of acceptance, respect, harmony, unity and inclusion. Commissioner Tan also stated that the tragedy in Christchurch is another reminder of the lesson that there is no place for racial or religious bigotry, prejudice, discrimination or hatred in our society.

I have met with the Muslim community recently and offered my support and to hear from them – including attending and speaking at the public Vigil held in Melbourne on Monday, as well as attending prayers with the Muslim community at Lakemba Mosque yesterday.

This terrible event was a stark reminder that we must all remain vigilant against the resurgence of far-right and extremist activity and against threats to our multicultural harmony.

In the wake of the Christchurch tragedy, I have on 21 March at the Commission’s ceremony to celebrate Harmony Day announced a series of national consultations with the Muslim community in Australia about their experiences of hate, violence and negative public commentary. 

I want to hear their voices, concerns and their experiences so that we can act to do everything in our power to help prevent us having our own Christchurch tragedy. 

Already in Victoria and in NSW I have heard concerns about the dangers of hate speech and the need for our community and elected leaders to act responsibly in preventing the spread of hate languages and fear rhetoric. But there was also a call for greater unity and greater efforts to strengthen our multicultural society.

It is important that I am in touch with and to ensure that I am hearing from Muslims across the country.  By really listening, I and the Commission will be working towards practical measures to put forward to act to ensure that we protect our social harmony and wonderful multicultural society and to keep the Muslim community and the wider community safe from racial hatred and from racial violence.

I would like to begin my speech today with a famous quote from the late great Nelson Mandela:

“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

This is a powerful message to consider, especially tonight as we celebrate IDERD, and reflect on the significance of this day in the shadow of the aftermath of the Christchurch tragedy. Tonight I would also like to particularly recognise and celebrate the resilience and achievements of African migrants and refugees in Australia, issues often conveniently ignored and forgotten in mainstream narratives of Africanness in Australia.

I would also like to acknowledge that today we celebrate IDERD in the International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024) the theme of which: People of African descent: recognition, justice and development is also powerful.

International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

On 21 March 1960 in Sharpeville, South Africa, police opened fire at a peaceful protest against the apartheid "pass laws". Many of you would know that pass laws were a pillar of the institutionalised racism of the South African apartheid regime – these laws sought to control the movements of non-white South Africans by restricting where they could and couldn’t go depending on their “pass”.

Police killed 69 people that day.

Six years later, in recognition of this atrocity, the United Nations declared March 21st the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Each year since then, the world comes together to remember its collective obligation to promote understanding, tolerance and the building of an international community free from all forms of racial discrimination, segregation and barriers, racism and related intolerances.

On IDERD it’s important we acknowledge that much has changed since that Declaration of the UN in 1966.

For example, across the globe, de jure or legally sanctioned overt systems of racial segregation such as apartheid in South Africa or those rooted in European colonial policies have largely been abolished; anti-racism has gained momentum as a strong, legitimate movement in the fight for racial equality; and most countries around the world now have national legal instruments that protect and ensure racial equality.

In Australia, since IDERD was declared, our notable gains have included the abolition of the White Australia policy; the 1975 ratification of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; the passage of the Racial Discrimination Act (1975) and the adoption of multiculturalism as official Australian government policy.

Despite these national and international gains, on IDERD we must also recognise that racism and associated intolerances and prejudices still exist within our own society.

They exist in various ways and forms in our workplaces, in our education system, in healthcare delivery and various other aspects of social, political and economic life. We know that there remains gross social inequalities and injustices because of racism and racial prejudices and discrimination.

This year IDERD has been particularly significant to me as I celebrate the day – for the first time – as Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner.

This means I celebrate IDERD with an explicit obligation and mandate to seek to eliminate and combat all forms of racism, as prescribed under the provisions of the RDA. It is in my job title now.

I am not new in the fight against racism. As many of you would know, I have been working in this space for quite some years: before I was the Race Discrimination Commissioner, I was Director of Multicultural Engagement at Swinburne University.

Prior to that, I was the Chairperson of the Victorian Multicultural Commission.

Supporting and building a strong and vibrant our multicultural society has been the focus of my work and advocacy for many years.

My new post as Race Discrimination Commissioner is the next stage in a continuing anti-racism and community building advocacy journey.

But, I can share with you that the fight against racism is a very long walk and one that you cannot walk alone. We will reach our destination only if we all walk as a community and share the equal burden of common purpose and values.

2019 Global Theme

Most of you would be aware already, that the global theme for IDERD 2019 is “Mitigating and countering rising nationalist populism and extreme supremacist ideologies”.  In a time where we are experiencing a re-awakening and increasing popularity of racist right-wing politics, challenging and exposing racism is urgently needed, now more than ever.

We are seeing the ugly face of prejudice and bigotry resurface in a way many may not have expected even just a few years ago. We are seeing for example, the proliferation of largely unregulated spaces on the internet including social media where these views thrive. Where keyboards have become tools of oppression, hatred and fear-mongering.

Extreme supremacist ideologies, events and instances have appeared in Australian public life - the recent St Kilda neo-Nazi rally supported and attended by a federal politician, divisive speech which called for a return to the White Australia policy; a parliamentary motion and debate that seek to promote one group and direct denigration and prejudice against others; the forum given to right-wing leader Blair Cottrell’s televised interview on Sky News in 2018 and ordinary Australians who, even as I speak, get abused and vilified for no other reason than the colour of their skin or because of their race or religion.

When these things happen they must be rejected and regarded for what they are, repulsive and repugnant, and they do not belong in Australia - not the Australia that many of us know and whose values we cherish.

These acts of racism and all acts of racism, need to be challenged and countered, they pose a real and present danger and threat to our national and community safety and cohesion, to our multicultural way of life and to the progress that we have made as Australians, in promoting racial equality and harmony in our society.

Nelson Mandela legacy

Let me turn now to the core theme of this address – anti-racism strategies.

Few would dispute that Nelson Mandela is one of the greatest leaders, human rights activists, advocates and champions for change in modern history. Mandela’s example of courage and compassion continue to inspire the world.

I always return to one question and I think it is very relevant to our gathering tonight, and indeed a lesson for each one of us in our daily lives. What was it that Mandela did so well that continues to inspire us today?

In essence, what would Mandela have done and what would he say to us?

I wish I had Mandela with me today, he would be the father who would give me the strength and the wisdom that I need, in these challenging and difficult times.

But I am grateful and comforted that Mandela has left so much legacy for us that serve as lessons and guide-posts to guide our path and understanding in dealing with the issues of our times and in continuing the journey that he has started and left with us.

To me, four great transformative principles from Mandela’s legacy and leadership stand out for as a framework for our journey to eliminating racism. For me these represent possible effective characteristics of anti-racism strategies. I want to briefly touch on them.

1) First - the value of persistence and commitment

Perhaps the greatest lesson I have learnt from Mandela is the value of persistence. Persistence rooted in a strong commitment and conviction to social justice. A strongly held belief in social justice fuels persistence even in the face of adversity and set-backs. Even when the road is long and sometimes very dark, this strong commitment encourages us not to give up.

Fighting for racial equality is a tough road, especially in an era of denial, indifference, arrogance and deflections.

Unlike the time of Mandela, racism is not overtly enshrined in laws, now it is more likely to exist in systemic and subtle forms. Robust, violent and nasty interpersonal occurrences and experiences of racism are seen as the exception rather than the rule for some racial and ethnic minority groups.

To Eddie S. Glaude Jr, the Distinguished University Professor at Princeton University and the author of the book, “Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul”, “the naked racism of the previous generation” that we thought “was banished” may not necessarily “mean that prejudice was stripped from the national discourse”. It had “simply shifted” and given way “to concerns about crime and affirmative actions”.  He alluded to “coded speech and racial dog whistles” that “allowed Janus-faced politicians to decry bigotry in one moment while exploiting hatred and fear in another”. And, he spoke about the “softened tone” that “obscured what still lurked beneath” about beliefs of who belonged and who the “country belonged to”.

In many ways this makes the current fight against racism all the more challenging, and persistence with sophistication is even more important.

2) Next, forgiveness and creating cohesion

Mandela’s message and example of forgiveness is perhaps one of the toughest and most exemplary ones to fathom and emulate in the fight for racial equality. But it is also one for which we truly must strive. To go to combat against something is only noble and makes good sense if it is to also build on something new, or to build on something we value or to protect something that we value and cherish.

Mandela believed forgiveness was a strong tool in breaking down racial barriers and progressing racial equality. True and humble forgiveness for racial trespasses of the past comes with hope for the future, with a commitment to building a strong and cohesive society. It comes with finding common ground and consensus and building upon those rather that resorting to accusations, divisive and pointed fingers and laying blames on others - it comes with a willingness to embrace our differences and diversity and a shared, common future

3) Third, unity and collaboration

A recurring theme in Mandela’s work was his message of unity and collaboration. His vision of a post-apartheid South Africa was one of democratic unity, a unified nation. The transformative power of unity lies in its ability to foster collaboration and cooperation, two fundamental cornerstones of any work to eliminate racism, and to build a community and a nation.

Yes, Mandela was very focussed, devoted and enduring in his fight against racism, but I am sure many of us will agree that he will be remembered as a great humanitarian who has inspired us through his message of peace, compassion and unity. This is what created the necessary energy and space for achieving his transformative unity.

Mandela’s message of unity attracted and inspired a world-wide audience and reached far and wide. We know that many ordinary Australians supported the fight to abolish apartheid – fund raising, advocacy, sporting sanctions, and more.

4) Lastly, the power of the individual

As a global symbol for the fight for racial equality, Mandela showed the world what each of us has the power to achieve when we genuinely commit to social justice. In many ways this is the main message of Mandela Day: focussing on “the self” and being aware that we each, individually, have the power and capability to make positive changes in the world.

I have no doubt that most, if not all of you in this room today, continue to be inspired by Mandela in our quest to end racism.

A second important question I often ask myself is: “if Mandela were here today, in my shoes, with his values, what would he do to end racism in Australia?”

This question, in particular inspires and encourages me to be persistent in my own work to eliminate racism and racial discrimination, promote social cohesion, and to strive for collaboration and unity.

Racial discrimination in Australia

Even as we acknowledge Mandela’s legacy, many of you would agree that we face difficult terrain in our work to combat racism and racial discrimination.

In Australia, reported experiences of discrimination and race hate continue to tell a sombre story about the impacts of racism in Australia. Scanlon Foundation surveys have found that during the last two years, 20 per cent of surveyed Australians have said they have experienced discrimination on the basis of their race or religion in the previous 12 months. This is the highest level seen since the Scanlon surveys began in 2007.

If we look at the community level, the numbers are even more concerning. Scanlon’s Australians Today report, released in 2016, found that African Australian respondents experienced particularly high levels of discrimination and racial profiling.

77 per cent of those born in South Sudan, and 75 per cent of those born in Zimbabwe, reported experiencing discrimination, for instance. These numbers are probably no surprise to many people in this room. But they should be a cause for alarm, and a call to attention and action, to our broader Australian community, me included.

The African Australian experience

African Australian communities in all their rich diversity continue to face racism in ways that other communities may not. Over the last couple of years there has, of course, been ongoing public and media attention – some would say undue and unfair attention – on young African Australians living in Melbourne, and what has been commonly framed as a gang or crime crisis.

Let us be clear on this. It is not in dispute that some young African Australians are involved in crime. I note their communities are working constructively with police on improving and resolving these issues. But as members of a tolerant multicultural society, all Australians have a duty and obligation - and it is in our collective interest – that we refrain from racialising this issue, badging it as a problem with a particular racial or ethnic group in our community.

Unfortunately, African Australian voices and stories are not often accurately portrayed or conveyed in the media. Rather, media stories focus, sometimes unnecessarily on negative stories. Such reporting not only sets up an “us vs them” dichotomy, it is an appeal to fear and ignorance that paints these Australians as the “other” who exists outside the structures of normal Australian life.

What is very often ignored and absent in media and national narratives are stories of the great resilience of African-Australians in the face of adversity and discrimination, especially systemic discrimination; stories of African-Australian success – in business, in professions, in human rights advocacy, in education; stories of African-Australians’ enduring commitment to Australia.

We all know at least one phenomenal African-Australian making great positive changes in their community as human rights champions, sports people, teachers, lawyers, doctors and so on. We also know that there are many African-Australian-led community and not-for-profit organisations working daily to raise the profile of their communities nationally.

These are the people and organisations who should be the subject of reporting but rarely are. These are the people and organisations living Mandela’s legacy, grasping with both hands every opportunity they can to face down racism and racial discrimination and contribute to the broader Australian community.

The challenge ahead of us then does not only involve ending racism and prejudice that African Australians face as individuals and as a community, it involves creating spaces where they have capacity for self-realisation, self-representation and a space and capacity for their voices and achievements to be heard.

There are a myriad of untold stories of success of African migrants and refugees. The only way we can change the narrative is to champion people speaking for themselves. The Commission and I are committed to this ongoing engagement with and support for African communities in Australia.

My agenda and priorities

Celebrating IDERD this year has given me the opportunity to reflect on Australia’s commitment to African-Australians in this International Decade for people of African Descent. In 2013, the UN declared 2015-2024 the decade for people of African descent, “citing the need to strengthen national, regional and international cooperation in relation to the full enjoyment of economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights by people of African descent, and their full and equal participation in all aspects of society”. 

It is my role, as Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner, to also work to further the activities set out in the UN Programme – in collaboration with African-Australians – to ensure that Australia makes “concrete and practical steps […] to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance faced by people of African descent”.

Over the coming months I hope to travel the country and speak with communities about their experiences and their views on what can and needs to be done around race. It is critical that I am across community experiences and understandings of racism and racial discrimination and the issues of concern. It is imperative that we begin the work to confront them.

And, as well as listening, we will need to focus on community engagement, in promoting community understanding and investing in public education about racial discrimination and racism. We should seek to be proactive and reflective and not just reactive in combating racism.


Many of us know that since 1999, Australia has celebrated IDERD as Harmony Day. Although celebrating harmony and eliminating racial discrimination represent different sentiments, I believe they are two sides of the same coin. We cannot eradicate racism without fostering multiculturalism and social cohesion, and vice versa.

In addition to all the valuable things we have said today about Mandela and his legacy and lessons, I wish to add these last messages:

1. Australia is a multicultural society. The message of inclusion and equality will remain unchanged – strong and vibrant. It will withstand the challenges and test of time. It is in-divisible and indefeasible.

2. There is no place for racism, racial or religious bigotry, prejudice, discrimination or hate in this country, or anywhere.

3. We must draw the line against racial and religious bigotry, prejudice, discrimination and hatred. We do so not because it is convenient, socially or politically expedient but because it is the right thing to do and because it is the answer to harmony and peace in our society.  We will draw the line and we will do so, with ourselves, our families, …. We will hold ourselves, our families …. accountable.

We may not be able to change the minds and hearts of those who already hate but like Mandela said “People … learn to hate” and we can at least help stop a few from learning to hate.

I am, drawn to the words of Deborah E. Lipstadt, the Dorot Professor of Holocaust Studies at Emory University and author of the book, “Antisemitism: Here and Now” when she wrote in the Time magazine in the aftermath of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre, in an article titled “May Their Memory Be a Lesson”. And I quote, “We may never change the minds of people who send pipe bombs, but we can stop them from influencing others. This year, at Thanksgiving dinner, when your curmudgeon uncle or successful cousin … begins to rant about Jews, blacks, Muslims and LGBTQs who are ruining this country, do not sit idly by. Challenge them. Do so not to change their minds but to reach others who are listening and learning. Silence is an imprimatur for hate and prejudice”.

In conclusion, I truly believe for Australia, this is the time to ensure people – especially vulnerable minority groups such as African migrants and Muslims in Australia – have the opportunity to become more engaged, build trust, and have the confidence they are part of the same community.

It is a question of social inclusion and identity, and it is, in my view, something for urgent consideration.

We will not build the inclusive multicultural society we need without all its members being assured and confident they belong, and have a shared common interest, reality and future as Australians.

I leave you all with a challenge, a challenge which is also mine: to reflect on Mandela’s anti-racism principles and legacy and consider how each and every one of us can incorporate them more consciously into our personal and community lives to combat racism.

And, finally, my friends, I also leave you with the poignant but profound exhortation of Deborah Lipstadt in the aftermath of the Christchurch atrocity, “ In Jewish tradition, upon mourning the dead, we say: May their memory be for a blessing. Today we should say: May the memory of all those killed and the suffering of those who have been wounded be for a blessing and for a lesson, a lesson we ignore at our personal, national and moral risk”

Thank you very much for having me here this evening and for being part of the journey to make our community more peaceful. Inclusive, equitable, equal and safer for all of us.


Mr Chin Tan, Race Discrimination Commissioner