A SLEW of racist comments on social media in South Africa have unleashed outrage and exposed deep hostility in the “Rainbow Nation” as it struggles with its demons 22 years after white-minority rule ended.
Irritated by rubbish left on a beach following New Year’s Day celebrations, Penny Sparrow, a white real estate agent from the eastern coast province of KwaZulu-Natal, wrote a savage comment on Facebook.
“From now I shall address the blacks of South Africa as monkeys as I see the cute little wild monkeys do the same—pick and drop litter,” she said, in a posting that soon went viral.
The following day Chris Hart, an economic analyst often quoted in the media, came under fire for comments on Twitter about a growing “sense of entitlement and hatred towards minorities” in South Africa.
He has since been suspended from his position at Standard Bank, which said there were “racist undertones” in his comments.
The posts touched off a vicious cycle of hatred in a country still traumatised by decades of finely-tuned discrimination between the races under apartheid rule.
“I want to cleanse this country of all white people… We must act as Hitler did to the Jews,” Velaphi Khumalo, a local government employee, wrote on another viral Facebook message as the war of words worsened.
He too has since been suspended by the Gauteng provincial government department, which condemned his “barbaric and racist utterances”.
Work to be done
Soon after Andrew Barnes, a white TV news anchor, was taken off air by local channel eNCA after mocking the pronunciation of a black government minister.
The flood of insults “has shone a light on the amount of work that still needs to be done to bring true reconciliation to South Africa,” Mienke Steytler of South Africa’s Institute of Race Relations (IRR) told news agency AFP.
The ruling African National Congress (ANC) has filed charges of “crimen injuria” (intentionally impairing the dignity of others), against both Sparrow and Hart—but not Khumalo.
“We opened and laid charges against the people who originally started making these offensive statements,” party spokesman Zizi Kodwa told AFP.
“These individuals must be punished because they are taking South Africa back… South Africa has never been so polarised as it is today racially.
“Khumalo reacted to an offensive comment which was made against black people.”
Steytler slammed the ANC for “unacceptable discrimination” over its decision not to pursue charges against Khumalo.
In 2000, 72% of South Africans were reported to believe interracial relations were improving. By 2012, that figure had dropped to 39% according to a government report.
The ANC has also floated the idea of laws criminalising “any act that perpetuates racism and glorifies apartheid”.
But criminalising racism is not necessarily the solution, said Nelson Mandela Foundation CEO Sello Hatang.
He quoted the late president Mandela, saying: “In the end, reconciliation is a spiritual process, which requires more than just a legal framework. It has to happen in the hearts and minds of people.”
A clumsy attempt to apologise by Sparrow only stoked public anger after she appeared to blame her diabetes for her outburst.
And the country’s largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, which has long been trying to shake off its reputation as a “white party”, was left red-faced when it was revealed that Sparrow was a member.
The party fought to defend itself, lashing out at Sparrow for “dehumanising black South Africans” and expelling her.
Khumalo, too, presented his apologies, but the explosion of vitriol across social media continued unabated—reflecting often-unspoken tensions within South African society.
“The weaker the economy is and the higher the unemployment figures are, the more frustrated people are and the more they are likely to lash out at each other,” said Steytler.
South Africa is battling a 25% unemployment rate, slow growth and a sharply weakening currency, with the risk of junk status looming on the credit horizon.
“We have been living on a cosmetic rainbow nation since 1994,” said Ronald Lamola, a former leader in the ANC’s youth wing. “There will be no racial harmony without economic equality.”