Kerushun Pillay
Kerushun Pillay

Penny Sparrow saga: Forget the outcry – racism is here to stay

Four days in, and South Africa already has its first bit of racial controversy for 2016. Penny Sparrow’s Facebook post — where she referred to black people at the beach on New Year’s Eve as “monkeys” — has surely got to be one of the fastest, and most bigoted, blunders we’ve seen.

The post has been condemned widely on social media. Sparrow is set to face legal action from the Democratic Alliance, for whom she is a now suspended member. She has faced criticism from the ANC and the ANC Youth League. Jawitz Properties, where Sparrow had worked until November last year, have distance themselves from Sparrow, saying that they too plan to take action against her. One assumes, also, that her comments will virtually kill her career prospects — for the near future, anyway.

Sparrow said in defence that she compared black people to monkeys because they are untidy and make mess wherever they go. “It’s just how they are”, she said. “Blacks can also be wonderful and I don’t hate the black people, it is just a fact that it was so filthy and dirty this year and that is my only point.”

She claimed people missed her point. She claimed, rather, that “monkey” is an endearing term, explaining that monkeys are “cute” and “naughty”, and that she loves animals. One really wonders how she was when selling property.

Plainly, her sentiments were gross and demeaning, with a shameful air of entitlement. And they were only furthered by her pitiful apology.

So, what can we learn from Penny Sparrow? Well, not much. In basic terms it is yet another expression of the racial tension that bubbles beneath the surface of the country. One assumes the kind of sentiment here is something that is spouted on a regular basis — this one just happened to be on a public platform.

And it follows an all-too-familiar pattern: an overt racist sentiment brings out a stream of backlash from the prominent, those in media, and members of the public. Then there are numerous condemnations, and some action is taken. Analysts are brought in on the news to dissect the incident, explaining how one’s race cannot signify a host of intellectual capacity or moral worth. People like me provide thoughts on the matter. Those in government (or elsewhere) call for a robust discussion about race. But it happens again.

We’ve been here before. We’ll be here again. That robust discussion around race is looking more and more like some kind of promised land pipedream than something that is genuinely considered as necessary to take South Africa forward.

Last year’s #RhodesMustFall campaign failed to get people to open up about race, identity, South African heritage, white privilege, and so on. Most turned their noses up at the protest, slating students for being disruptive and entitled.

In fact if anything, this incident only serves useful in warning those who wish to express similar feelings to be weary of social media.

Just how many people share Sparrow’s sentiments? For a start her Facebook friends who she obviously felt comfortable venting her views to. Depressingly, these are probably just a drop in the bucket.

Sparrow’s blunder makes us aware of the huge race problem in this country. But it will all be forgotten about this time next week.

We’ve gotten to the point where it is frankly pointless trying to critically dissect any of it. A shared desire to abolish our racial differences looks less likely to ever happen as time moves on and we grow more rooted in the country’s baggage.

Condemn and punish Sparrow as much as you believe she deserves.

Until we as a nation desire a dramatic shift in thinking, these acts are here to stay.

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    • Rusty Bedsprings

      One person in 5 million whites offers her erroneous opinion, and we have a national crisis. The usual sides of the argument are formed; all white people are racist privileged scum, all black people victims of personal and institutional racism.

      The overreaction is absolutely amazing. No restraint from anyone. No calls for calm. Just complete hatred being shown from all sides – death threats and counter threats. Can you imagine trying to explain to your maker when your time is up; “I killed because somebody called beach goers monkeys”. The press are having a field day: One sentence has created news for the week.

      I think what makes this worse, is there is more tension about this, than there was about Mbete’s “cockroach” statements about Malema. The fact she is a person of influence with these views, and still retains her position afterwards, shows the bias of the general population. I doubt monkeys are seen lower in stature than cockroaches in animal-comparison acceptability ratings (if there is such a thing). She still controls parliament, with who has chance to speak, and who does not. The bias of a lowly real estate agent is really nothing in comparison, yet here we are.

      What about the constant attack on “white” in the public forum? Whiteness, white privilege, white capital, white elite, etc. Why is it acceptable to point to a racial group and belittle them on a whole, paint them all with the same brush, for the masses to mull over. Blaming this section of the population for all of the ills of the citizenry is even more reckless than a primate comparison. Yet, we are all happy to watch it happen, without a blog written to warn of the consequences.

      I for one, am tired of being painted with a evil white brush, in public, without restraint. I have white skin, therefore I live a life of privilege, and I have stolen everything I have because my ancestors were less civilised than today’s standards. I did not settle here under the guise of theft. I applied through official channels to live in this country, I paid my dues, and my taxes, and followed the rules of the land. This country told me I was a citizen with an official letter, yet I am told I am foreign, that I am evil, that I am part of the problem, not part of the solution. If I was told I was a monkey, I would be less concerned about my future to be honest.

      You are just as guilty. You have taken the view of this woman, and assumed all her friends share her view, therefore they must be racist too. And from there, the iterations of friends to racists becomes a dangerous generalisation.

      I mean, honestly, it is like me deriving that you have preferential treatment on state contracts because you share ancestry with the Gupta family.

    • Karl-Heinz Sittlinger

      The really great irony is, that as horrible as the racist comments were, current responses to this are barely better. The amount of “not all white/DA people are racist, but..” articles have skyrocketed.

      So instead of condemning the individuals, the fault again lies with all of a certain skin color…there is a cycle at work here, and it involves people of all races. As long as that is not recognized, there can be no solution.

    • RSA.MommaCyndi

      I don’t quite understand the article.
      – If all Penny Sparrow’s friends are rampant racists, who agree with her views, then how did it become public knowledge? Someone must have disagreed with it enough to make it public
      – If we have such a huge racial problem, then why is this even news and not just a normal day? I’d have assumed that it made news BECAUSE it is so abnormal.
      – What does a statue of a skelem have to do with people on a beach? There is, to my mind, a difference between a FaceBook post and an historical event

      If you think that tackling racism is a fruitless exercise, then I would strongly suggest that you never turn your hand to gardening. Like racists, weeds tend to come back often. Leave them be and they just take over and make a mess of everything

    • Mandy de Waal

      I think you’re right. I think that racist attitudes will prevail until such time as SA is truly integrated, and the current class system is dramatically changed. Until the poverty gap is closed, education is improved and access to the economy is improved — until white owned capital is meaningfully redressed and suburbs are spatially divided racism will continue. The structures that support race [white] priviledge need to change before racist attitudes will change.

    • Johan Kruger

      Spot on!

    • Fred Basset

      Now we wait for KP’s take on Velaphi Khumalo. Will he venture into the other side of the fence? I don’t think so, not in the near future.