Penny Sparrow, age sixty-nine, a white real estate agent in Durban and a member of the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), in a Facebook post characterized black beach goers over New Year’s as “monkeys." (For many years, young black South Africans living inland have gathered on Durban’s beaches to celebrate New Year’s.) At about the same time, a bank economist tweeted about “majority (black) entitlement” as a barrier to economic growth. Others, evidently also white, on-line have expressed admiration for certain apartheid and pre-apartheid era political figures, including P.W. Botha and Cecil Rhodes. Black social media response has been fierce, including calls to take action “against all white people to end racism.”
These racist comments have been condemned by the political parties and the Congress of South African Trade Unions. DA party leader Mmusi Maimane has expelled Sparrow and reaffirmed that there is no place for racism in South Africa. His rhetoric was strong: “As a human being, and the leader of the Democratic Alliance, I’m angry. Recently you called me a monkey. In your argument you said that there were some blacks you could tolerate, but those at the beach that day who littered, were monkeys. This angers me.” The Human Rights Commission says that it will investigate all complaints about racism from whatever source.
The episode brings home to many South Africans that racism remains entrenched. Azad Essa, in a thoughtful post on The Daily Vox (Johannesburg) refers to “a toxic mix of race and class that pervades the way South Africa is structured.” He goes on to say, “The message of post-1990 South Africa is loud and clear... It’s okay to be racist but only in private. It’s okay to be condescending, so long as it’s subtle. It’s okay to be patronizing so long as you provide employment.”
Social media provides a forum whereby outrageous statements are widely publicized and amplified. So, too, may be the similarly outrageous response to them. That is a challenge to the management of South Africa’s complex brew of race and class and the enduring poverty of too many South Africans who are black.
This episode may also have a political context. The DA, long associated with whites, has been seeking black electoral support. It hopes to capture Gauteng province (Johannesburg) in elections later this year. However, its chances of success are nil if it is identified with white racism. Polling data has indicated that a significant number of young blacks believe that the DA’s “secret agenda” is restoration of apartheid. This, of course, is spurious, but the comments of Sparrow and other whites feed it. In his response to Sparrow, Maimane also said: “Our project, in case you thought otherwise, is to build a non-racial organization. A party for all South Africans. Our party is to create a movement of people from different races who are committed to Nelson Mandela’s dream, and are bound by the values of freedom, fairness, and opportunity.”