Cape Town Letter: ‘Monkey’ comments spark debate on racism

Angry debate on social media highlights worsening race relations in ‘rainbow nation’

In 2000, 72 per cent of South Africans  believed interracial relations were improving; by 2012, this had dropped to 39 per cent. Photograph: Lisa Hnatowicz/Foto24/Gallo Images/Getty Images

In 2000, 72 per cent of South Africans believed interracial relations were improving; by 2012, this had dropped to 39 per cent. Photograph: Lisa Hnatowicz/Foto24/Gallo Images/Getty Images

 

Will 2016 be the year in which the lofty idea of South Africa as a “rainbow nation” is finally laid to rest?

The term was coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the advent of democracy in 1994 to encapsulate the genuine hope most South Africans felt about their culturally-diverse country and its future.

But a slew of racist comments on social media in the first few weeks of this year laid bare the deep levels of hostility, misunderstanding and mistrust that still exist between South Africa’s black and white communities nearly 22 years after apartheid ended.

A thoughtless outburst on Facebook by an irritated middle-aged white woman about a mess made by black people who had a party was the spark that lit the fire.

Penny Sparrow described black beachgoers as “monkeys” in an apparent reaction to the large amounts of litter left behind after the black communities’ annual New Year’s Day celebrations there.

‘Monkeys’

“These monkeys that are allowed to be released on New Year’s Eve and Day on to public beaches, towns, etc, obviously have no education whatsoever,” her rant began.

Her comments sparked widespread public debate on social and traditional media platforms among black and white South Africans about the notions of free speech and hate speech, as well as the apparent socialisation of racism in society.

The comments also gave rise to a backlash against casual racism in communities – a practice that has festered here, unchallenged, for years.

Many called for punitive action to be taken against those involved in racist incidents. They weren’t disappointed.

Sparrow was forced to resign as an ordinary member of the opposition Democratic Alliance party, which insisted there was no place for racists in its ranks.

In another case, Nicole de Klerk, a young woman attending the 155th L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate, a horse race in Cape Town, on January 9th was involved in a confrontation with a group of black revellers and allegedly called them kaffirs – a derogatory Afrikaans term for black people – a number of times. She was ejected from the event and then fired by the Talent Bloom, a company she had only been employed with for two days.

Despite a certain ambiguity in comments made by controversial DJ Gareth Cliff and Standard Bank economist Chris Hart, they were also deemed racist and dealt with harshly.

Cliff was fired from his judging position on the South African Idols show by television producers M-Net after suggesting on Twitter that those condemning Sparrow’s comments did not understand free speech.

However, he subsequently took the issue to court, where judge Caroline Nicholls ordered the shock jock’s reinstatement, ruling there was a contract between him and M-Net that the latter could not terminate without following the correct procedure.

Hart was suspended pending an inquiry after he tweeted about a growing “sense of entitlement and hatred towards minorities” in South Africa, a comment that his employers said had racist undertones.

The perceived deluge of racist comments by white people inevitably sparked some similar retorts by irritated blacks, which were dealt with swiftly too.

As the number of incidents increased, local government employee Velaphi Khumalo wrote on Facebook: “I want to cleanse this country of all white people . . . We must act as Hitler did to the Jews”. He has been suspended by the Gauteng provincial government department for his “barbaric and racist utterances”.

While individual outbursts do not point to a society-wide malaise, recent data compiled by the government indicates racial disharmony is worsening.

One report revealed that, in 2000, 72 per cent of South Africans were reported to believe inter-racial relations were improving; by 2012, that figure had dropped to 39 per cent.

So what is to be done to tackle this worsening trend?

The office of the ANC chief whip in parliament issued a statement saying it firmly believed the time had come to create specific legislation to criminalise any act that perpetuated racism or glorified apartheid.

But experts say such an undertaking would be fraught with challenges, as it would be difficult to prosecute racist utterances if there was no direct victim – as was the case in the Sparrow outburst.

Government slurs

A good start would be for South Africa’s leaders to lead by example, but this has also been lacking in some quarters. For instance, in July 2014 in parliament, housing minister Lindiwe Sisulu accused the Democratic Alliance’s new leader Mmusi Maimane of being a “hired native”.

In February last year, speaker of the National Assembly Baleka Mbete referred to Economic Freedom Fighter leader Julius Malema as a “cockroach”, a particularly nasty slur in African culture that was widely used to stir up hate prior to the Rwandan genocide.

On a more practical level, the newly established civil society group, the Anti-Racism Network South Africa, is seeking to create a national action plan to combat racism, including the creation of reporting mechanisms and penalties for racism. Its first annual anti-racism week runs March 14th-21st this year.

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