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.