Georgina Guedes

What white South Africans should learn from Penny Sparrow

2016-06-10 15:06

Georgina Guedes

Penny Sparrow, the real estate agent who called black South Africans “monkeys” after photos of New Year’s celebrations on public beaches were published, has been ordered by the Umzinto Equality Court to pay a fine of R150 000.

I am, quite frankly, gobsmacked. I am astonished that the ANC laid the charges against her in the first place and I am astonished that she has been found guilty by a court of law. This is not to say that I disagree with the findings necessarily, just that I find the whole process surprising.

Penny Sparrow is undoubtedly a racist. And really, 22 years after democracy, white South Africans should have broken with the atrocities of the past that we either committed or benefited from.

To hold our heads high in a polite global society, we should be doing what we can to speak out against racism – here and abroad – and to make up for the evils that were committed to further our cause in the past. Really, that’s what we should be doing.

The public has spoken

So, people like Penny Sparrow – the ones who have never considered South Africa’s past and thought, “Gosh, I am so embarrassed that I was ever a part of that. What can I do to make it better?” – deserve to be called out on their bigoted views and publicly lambasted for clinging to their misguided delusions of white supremacy.

And that is what South Africa did. At the hands of the public, Sparrow was humiliated. She was schooled.

Unfortunately, a disastrous radio interview in the week after her events were publicised highlighted how little she had learnt. She still saw nothing wrong in her words, and was baffled as to why everyone was getting so het up.

“Monkeys are cute and they are naughty,” she said.

Perhaps she will learn something from this ruling – but I am not hopeful. Her daughter made apologies and said that she was too ill to come to court. Even if she had put in an appearance, I doubt she’d have learnt anything other than perhaps to express her views among her close family and friends rather than on social media. It seems unlikely that any levels of self-analysis will be achieved.

In fact, I think she’s likely to be more angry and resentful than she ever was before.

What about all the other Sparrows?

The troubling thing for me about all of this is that Penny Sparrow is not unique. She’s one of – I believe – the majority of white South Africans who still commit acts of casual racism every day. That doesn’t excuse it, but it’s important to recognise that the problem is bigger than Penny Sparrow.

I know a man who was denied a room in an empty guesthouse the moment he let the receptionist know his surname over the phone. I know a man who was denied access to a tennis club in Bloemfontein. I know a guy who politely asked the man behind him to reverse and was called a “kaffir” in Hermanus. I hear these stories from black people every day.

I don’t know how the legal system works or which law she broke. Like I said, I am surprised that there is a financial penalty for racism – and this being the case, that it is not applied more often.  There are going to be a lot of debates in the coming days about freedom of expression, and I will be interested to read about what the legal minds have to say.

But whatever we feel about Sparrow’s fine, and whatever the legal analysts say, the one thing that all white South Africans should be taking to heart is that speaking as she did is not OK. Saying the things she said is not acceptable. And not because we fear R150 000 fines, but because 22 years later, we really, really should have moved on from this.

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