Penny Sparrow made racist comments about black people using Durban’s beach on New Year’s Day. Photograph: Rogan Ward/Reuters

South Africa has no patience for Penny Sparrow’s apartheid nostalgia

January 7, 2016

This week racist commentary by a white South African estate agent, Penny Sparrow, went viral. Within a few days, Sparrow — who referred to Durban’s black beach-goers as monkeys on Facebook — had been publicly shamed. To date, a charge of crimen injuria has been laid against her and a complaint about her statements lodged with the Human Rights Commission. Since finding her phone number angry South Africans have sent Sparrow a deluge of voice and text messages and her social media accounts have been inundated with monkey emoticons. To top it all off, she’s lost her job and is said to be in hiding.

Sparrow clearly hit a nerve but her rant was hardly creative. It was crude and unimaginative, but South Africans — across the racial spectrum — have responded en masse because we recognise Sparrow. To white South Africans she is the embarrassing aunt who refuses to join the 21st century. To black South Africans she is the abrasive woman in the supermarket whose superiority complex makes her a compulsive queue jumper. We all know her kind well.

Because of this, there haven’t been many white South Africans jumping to Sparrow’s defence. It has been relatively easy for South Africans of all races to agree that the woman is obnoxious. Sparrow is an important part of South Africa’s story not because she is divisive but rather that she is so easily recognisable. Sparrow matters not because she insulted black people but because she so obviously misses apartheid.

When in her post Sparrow writes about “these monkeys that are allowed to be released on new year’s day onto the public beaches,” she reminds us all that there was a time, not too long ago, when “public” beaches were segregated. Her anger at the “black on black skins” crowding on to the beach is premised on the idea that the beach is not meant for blacks. She is asserting that black people do not know how to behave when they are given permission to occupy public spaces.

It is not incidental that beaches evoke such strong emotion in South Africa. They are a symbol of the best of the good old days. They were crucial to the psyche of white South Africans because they provided a safe place of fantasy. On the beach, white people could retreat from the reality of Africa: that it was a land inhabited by black people. They could pretend they were anywhere in the world except South Africa: in New England or Brighton or even the south of France. The beach offered respite from the reality that despite apartheid, whites could not escape black people. Black people were their servants, their employees, their petrol attendants but seldom their peers.

In today’s South Africa it could be argued that little has changed, the beach remains a segregated space. Yet, as the Penny Sparrow incident reveals, so much has changed in the way South Africans feels about their country and their future. Some white South Africans, like Sparrow, romanticise apartheid because they feel as though they have lost control of a territory they once commanded. They feel as though they are under siege, overrun and threatened. In reality, however, whites continue to have a monopoly on the resources in the country. They have better jobs, higher levels of education and employment, and better social networks. In other words, their sense of loss is disproportionate to their gains under the new dispensation.

In the early days of the transition, there might have been more voices calling for South Africans to understand that Penny Sparrow’s hysteria is based on fear, and that all fear is underpinned by vulnerability. They might have argued that Sparrow needs pity rather than vitriol. Those days are over. Twenty years after the end of apartheid, this generation isn’t interested in understanding the roots of white vulnerability. Their eyes are on accountability and building a new political culture based on justice rather than nostalgia and sentimentality.

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Originally published on The Guardian

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