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.