Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

Thank you Penny

A preamble: just as Penny Sparrow does not speak for me, I do not speak for any of you. But I am hoping that some of you will at least listen, and think, and reflect.

As a white South African, I’d like to say thank you to Penny Sparrow. Without her, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. We’d be bitching and moaning as usual about the rand and #ZumaMustFall and thinking we can continue to avoid the angry elephant in the room. Here’s a spoiler alert: we can’t.

White South Africans have to address racism in our midst, and we have to address it now.

Racism has always been an obstacle to the building of genuine national consensus, we simply allowed shiny Rugby World Cup trophies to fool us into thinking we didn’t have to deal with it. The Rainbow Nation myth gave white South Africans permission to let themselves off the hook without ever asking forgiveness of black South Africans, or even expressing contrition. This has caught up with us, and we can’t ignore it any longer.

So, now, we are faced with this stark reality: that racism is the single biggest threat to South Africa’s future prosperity — because it stands in the way of addressing any other issue currently facing us. Anger and hurt are justifiably dominating public discourse, which means that there is no chance of rational or considered reflection. (If white South Africans phone 702 to wail about how hurt they feel because of criticism, imagine how black South Africans feel when they see references to monkeys or entitlement.)

Every time white South Africans say “get over the past already” — while, at the same time, indulging in nostalgia about how great the apartheid days were — we ensure that the legacy of apartheid will always matter more than current and future delivery, and more than holding our leaders to account. Sparrow and her ilk might as well be campaigning for a political party they profess to hate, and they’re too stupid to see it.


Butbutbutbut! you protest. What about crime? Or BEE? Or Nkandla, load shedding, SAA and all your pet hates? “I was born after 1990, so it doesn’t involve me.” And, yes, what about examples of hate speech like this?

And so on, and so on, and so on.

Well, you know what? There can be no ifs or buts. If we as white South Africans are going to refuse to deal with racism, if we are going to keep saying “but what about … ” in response to every criticism, then we are going to go around in circles forever, probably around a plughole.

Someone has to take a stand. We have no choice but to live together — visa regulations and points systems mean that mass immigration of white South Africans is a fantasy, both for those who want to leave and those who want to see them go — and this means that we need to be mature about this, whether we like it or not. We have to acknowledge that we cannot talk about freedom of speech, or the rand, or crime, or corruption, until we have this conversation. And this conversation is going to be uncomfortable for us. Having it does not mean that we will be liked, or greeted with open arms. There will be no tearful reunions where everyone hugs and says, “I love you”.

But with visible commitment by us and a little bit of luck, we may collectively emerge as citizens, not of a tenuous facsimile of togetherness that flickers only into view when a national team is playing sport on TV, but a nation built on the hard daily grind of honesty, mutual respect and understanding that if we work together, we have a shot at achieving the elusive better life for all.

Sentiments are all very well, but action counts. What, then, can white South Africans actually do?

Demonstrating that we are opposed to racism is only part of the task facing us. Whether this takes the form of marches, or some kind of declaration, I don’t know. (#RacismMustFall, #RacismNotInMyName and #RacismStopsWithMe are already circulating. Hashtags don’t fix problems or replace the need for substantive action, but they can make necessary conversations visible, and that is part of what is needed.) Whatever we do, it should not involve politicians.

But what else?

For a start, we can pronounce African names correctly. There’s a reason that #TheYearWeMispronounceBack is trending. Even if the clicks defeat us (and I stumble over them all the time), we can make an effort. We can also stop mocking black South Africans for their pronunciation of English.

Listen more. We can resist the urge to be defensive the moment we see a comment critical of white South Africans. We can also make an effort to understand why black South Africans are angry, and not judge or attempt to police that anger.

Speak out when we see or hear racism either online or offline. Racism should be socially unacceptable and that will only happen if white South Africans call out other white South Africans. Whether it happens on Facebook or around the braai, say something. Raise the social cost of being a racist.

Examine our own attitudes and think about the impact of our thoughts before we make them public. Yes, self-censorship is necessary, and we should practice more of it.

Learn an official language other than English or Afrikaans. This is probably the single most important thing we can do in the short term.

There’s a lot more, but this is a start.

Phew. Deep breaths. Is your blood boiling? Are you already composing a comment refuting everything you’ve just read?

I’ve written this wondering which quotes will be selectively tweeted, which will trigger outrage, and which will get approving RTs depending on whose agenda they serve. I know that I’ll be dismissed either as an embarrassing proponent of whiteness or a contemptible libtard and worse; that this will be forwarded to expats from Canada to New Zealand with comments like SMH and WTF; that Steve Hofmeyr and Dan Roodt will hate me more than ever, Andile Mngxitama will never love me, and it would be much, much easier to keep quiet. And yes, to be honest, I am not particularly optimistic about how many white South Africans are willing to take a step back and examine themselves critically. (If racism becomes a criminal offence, we’re going to have a real problem finding enough jail space for everyone.)

But I do believe that there are many white South Africans out there who do want to see change, and are willing to do something about it instead of pretending that it is someone else’s problem. I know some of you. It would be good to see lots more of us raising our hands.

This is just the start in a long and hard journey, and it will not be easy. But when so much is at stake, there really is no other way.

Thanks again Penny, for inadvertently giving us the collective kick up the backside that we needed.

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    • Achmad Osman

      As an Orange South African, I can stand on the sidelines and simply shake my head. I read the tweet from Sparrow and simply thought – here we have a old person (yes, you can call me ageist if you want) who simply has not grasped the concept of Social Media. She has taken all the stuff in her head and put it out there for all to see and comment on.
      We cannot criticise people for their prejudices – she tweeted what was genuinely on her mind. We can however, criticise her for using a tool (Social Media) that she simply has not grasped the concept of. Like jumping into a Porsche and putting her foot hard on the accelerator and after ploughing into a group of people, saying “I did not realise that it could go that fast”.

    • Citizenmac

      No mention or reference is made to the continual blaming of whites for all the ills that beset our country today. However must state, yes Blacks suffered under the past regimes who ruled South Africa but how many of the people who introduced the Apartheid system have any influence in governance now, in fact how many of them are still alive. Whites did benefit from those past times in having a better education and employment opportunities but then again not every single white voted the Nationalist government into power and in those times opposition to government was stronger than that of present governance. Whites who remain here are settlers in every way and are South African first and foremost and will always be loyal the country of their birth.The question arises why are the present leaders and officials perpetuating the label of all white people are racist and the economy is all in the hands of a few white people. While in true perspective the economy is open to all with multinational investors holding major portions of shares, do not forget many black shareholders and entrepreneurs also have large investments too. This nation needs leaders of integrity so as to move forward without prejudice as to creed or culture.

    • Ken Bot

      I’ll just say: I DO NOT THANK Penny for effectively incriminating all whites.
      The majority of whites KNOW DAMN well that, TOGETHER WE ARE STRONGER.
      The rest are a pain in our(B&W’s) butt and they’re not going to change.

    • Marc

      My uncle is fluent in Shona but it didnt help him one bit when the ‘war vets’ came to take the farm he had spent a lifetime building up from nothing, at the end of the day he was still just a white farmer. So what I am saying is that I agree you should make every effort possible to integrate, but as you say people like Mngxitama will never love you no matter what you do. I don’t believe that the current govt is really interested in building a united country, in fact they seem to be encouraging the opposite, and unfortunately I dont think society can do it on its own.

    • Ken Bot

      Whites are continuously reminded how evil we and our forefathers were, this struggle is enough to deal with!
      Then, if we criticize a black person, we branded racist.

      RESPECT and FAIRNESS TO ALL….. it’s that SIMPLE.

    • Partyforever

      So you say the racist attitudes of some whites are a greater problem than all those previously mentioned problems combined or individually? For you perhaps! But running a country means far more than just adjusting attitudes! It means results! You have to take personal responsibility for your own results! It’s YOU! You are where you are because you aren’t using the opportunities in the global environment to accelerate. South Korea was as poor as Mozambique 60 years ago. Today its income is 4 times higher than South Africans. It’s exports is 5 times higher. There’s your example. Czech Republic. Slovakia. There’s countless examples of ex – Soviet – era economies with far less resources than South Africa that are earning far more income a year per person than South Africa.

      Lets take an example:

      Lithuania 2002 -> GDP per capita = $6,500
      Lithuania 2014 -> GDP per capita = $16,200

      South Africa 2002 -> GDP per capita = $5,000
      South Afirca 2014 -> GDP per capita = $6,477

      Google South Africa GDP per capita

      click “Explore more” and check how we compare against all other countries. It’s shocking, there’s no excuse, we are by far, the worst performing economy in the world. We need to implement painful structural changes to the economy such as limiting unions going forward, we can’t continue to blame whites for all the ills in the world.

    • Pieter

      I have read at least two posts by black people with the same content. This comment contains hate speech. With farmers and farm workers dying I think this is a serious crime and should be handled as a hate crime. Please speak out about this too.

      “Khumalo was responding to a post by former estate agent Penny Sparrow, comparing black people to monkeys. “I want to cleans this country of all white people. we must act as Hitler did to the Jews. I don’t believe any more that the is a large number of not so racist whit people . I’m starting to be sceptical even of those within our Movement the ANC. I will from today unfriend all white people I have as friends from today u must be put under the same blanket as any other racist white because secretly u all are a bunch of racist fuck heads. as we have already seen [all sic],” he wrote.He later said he was unapologetic about his post.”–?utm_source=Politicsweb+Daily+Headlines&utm_campaign=7234ace751-DHN_7_January_2016&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_a86f25db99-7234ace751-130070433

    • Karl-Heinz Sittlinger

      Damage being done at the present (that can still be mitigated), must always be addressed BEFORE damage done in the past…as what is done in the past cannot be changed. I agree with a lot you write, not with that our current problems such as Zuma and current hate speech (from both sides) should take the back seat.
      “Well, you know what? There can be no ifs or buts.” Is not the solution to solving the very real problems that are affecting everyone.

    • Sean Crookson

      This is disappointingly poor advice. It doesn’t tackle racism in general, only that from one side. Since when do the actions of one person represent the rest by virtue of colour?

      I encounter racists of all colours. It appears to be a hangover from the past. The old system was strong and we aren’t going to see the attitudes change overnight. What we need is tolerance instead of minority bashing.

      The article is also saying minorities shouldn’t stand up for themselves, which can never be right. The blame culture will continue and the country will remain divided until we finally reach Zimbabwe2, if we aren’t quite there already.

    • RSA.MommaCyndi

      When a billboard is labelled ‘racist’ for having unemployment figures, I recon that it is time that I do the opposite of integrate. I’m seriously looking at the idea that I must just not say anything on any social media or communicate with anyone, outside of my small group of real life friends, with anything more than a greeting. Even greeting someone may fall by the wayside if that starts to become a problem (which it has before now).

      As part of the ‘white’ community, I was horrified by Sparrow and van Vuuren and various others. It was completely unacceptable. I do, however, fear that this will be the ‘Year of the Race Card’ and am not going to be pulled into it. Everyone seems to be actively looking for something to label as racist. I’d be happier living in my little non racial cocoon, with my non racist friends, than be part of the destruction of everything we have all worked so hard to achieve

    • Partyforever

      At the height of slavery, less than 5 percent of American families actually had slaves

    • Ken Bot

      With the rise of Julius Malema, Black Racist sentiment has been increasing & the ANC has jumped on board since realizing it’s a voted winner.
      The ANC is even blaming white apartheid for ESKOM’s woes and SAA’s…I kid you not! HOW THE HELL DOES THIS BUILD UNITY?

    • Testing Testing

      I have never disagreed with you as much as I do on this post. If you
      truly think “that racism is the single biggest threat to South Africa’s
      future prosperity” you clearly don’t spend enough time working on real
      issues within South African business and the South African economy.

      Honestly, corruption is an issue that has nothing to do with racism. Our poor
      education system has nothing to do with racism. The falling rand has
      nothing to do with racism. ‘Fix’ racism and you’ve fixed absolutely
      nothing, we’ll still be headed down a very dark path – together, sure,
      arm in arm, but it won’t fix a thing.

      Can you not see that the ANC is using this as an opportunity to steer the conversation away from Zuma? We should be smarter than this.

      Of course there are many white South Africans out there who do want to see
      change, and are willing to do something about it. But I believe that
      you are placing far to much emphasis on this issue – which of course
      will never go away – when there are much more pressing issues to solve.

    • 1Zoo1

      Racism is a distraction. In December 2015 the president changed the Minister of Finance like the office were socks. It caused huge losses of wealth and has placed the country in a dire financial position.

      Then a nobody on the KZN south coast posts a racist comment. Que massive upheaval in social media, why? Because we all know that we can do nothing about Zumas right now. We are actually powerless as the ANC continues to destroy the economy. We lash out at each other instead of dealing with the problem.

      We’re fighting with each other for no reason. For goodness sake, we got through Apartheid, we can get through this with consummate ease.

      But the media, needing click-bait, and the ANC needing to distract, are focusing us on this issue instead of the big issues – the economic destruction of the country by the ANC, the handing of education to SADTU thus destroying the generation of skills where we need it most, and so on.

      Now we have a further distraction of criminalization of “racist” speech. What rubbish. We need to talk openly and frankly. We need to insult each other and find each other for real. If we don’t do this we’ll never heal. How will a person harbouring racist attitudes ever know she is actually wrong if she can never express those views and be called on them?

      Finally – the most awful post of all (by some distance) by Khumalo is receiving the least attention. Why?

    • Jason Coetzee

      This is the absolute bare minimum whites can do. We should be doing a lot more in terms of development initiatives, and some are. Secondly, to those who are saying what about corruption, what about this/that etc. What are you doing to positively work on those issues? Nothing? Well here is something you can do that will help your country and fellow South Africans that is within your reach. Now step up.

    • Peter Leyland

      Do we all accept the fact that everyone can be racist, no matter their ethnicity or skin colour? Yes or no?

    • Peter Leyland

      Whites have inherited the benefits enjoyed – unjustly – by our parents and grandparents during Apartheid.

      So have our children.

    • Waxfoot

      “mass immigration of whites”?
      You mean emigration, right?

      Emotive distractions like racism aside, skilled labour will simply migrate where the work is.
      With a tanking economy and our venerable leaders re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, it should come as no surprise that emigration is survival strategy for many South Africans.

    • Dr_Zeek

      Tell that to my student loan, car loan, home loan, overdraft and all the bills coming in…

    • Dr_Zeek

      Is it racism that has caused SA’s standard of living and life expectancy to drop since 1994?

    • Saysom Bel-eir

      True indeed and it is absurd that so many people follow this kind of leaders. How tomorrow will be if we keep going on this way?

    • Saysom Bel-eir

      You still right “HOW THE HELL DOES THIS BUILD UNITY? “We have a problem of ignorance in this country. And they know what kind of brain they spark in our communities but choose ignorance. we are all South Africans black or white, new citizen and refugees lets respect and love one another…

    • TerminalA

      benefits enjoyed…really….. i am white…i want my benefits…!!!
      by 20 i was living in a rented bedroom in a westdene block of flats, eating bread and soup while searching for a job, and then ‘stealing’ fruit, tea / coffee and toilet rolls from work as i couldn’t afford to pay for them myself…. i still don’t own a house, have extremely limited savings and don’t own any land whatsoever….. where are my white privileges? i want my apartheid benefits too!!!

    • TerminalA

      love how black people DEMAND that whites ‘condemn, vilify and be horrified’ by what sparrow and hart wrote, yet in the same breath black people agree with and support calls for white genocide and outright hatred by velaphi khumalo…. he hasnt even lost his job, there were no death threats from whites made against him…… so its a case as do what we say but not as we do