South Africa’s ruling ANC party is pushing for tougher anti-racism laws following a white woman’s Facebook post comparing black beachgoers to monkeys. A spate of similar postings has ignited fresh debate on racism.
Anger following racist postings on social media sites has highlighted racial divisions in South Africa. Many see the comments as a confirmation that even twenty-one years after the official end of South Africa's apartheid system, racism is still a reality.
White South African Penny Sparrow is facing criminal charges after a Facebook post in which she described black people as ‘monkeys' because of the mess they made on Durban's beach during New Year's Eve celebrations. The real estate agent from KwaZulu-Natal, a province on South Africa's eastern coast, wrote: "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." Sparrow later deleted the post and apologized.
The African National Congress (ANC), South Africa's ruling party, said in a statement on Tuesday that it had launched legal action and was pursuing a case against Sparrow and others "who have made racist remarks on a number of social media."
The country's opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), of which Sparrow was a member, has also opened a case against her, and has suspended her membership. "Our member in Gauteng, Herman Mashaba has opened a criminal case against Penny," the DA's Dumisani Mcwango said. "We really want to show to South Africans that there is no space for racism in South Africa. This is an insult to all South Africans especially the black majority, because her comments are actually dehumanizing the black majority in South Africa."
Tensions erupt online
In a similar incident, prominent economist Chris Hart was suspended by his employer Standard Bank for what it said were "racist undertones" in a tweet. Hart criticized black South Africans for a "sense of entitlement" after Apartheid, suggesting that "minorities," referring to white South Africans, were being treated badly.
Hart later tweeted an apology, saying his comments were "meant to be read in context of slow growth."
Thousands of South Africans took to Twitter in response to postings from Sparrow and Hart, using the hashtag #RacismMustFall.
According to a December 2015 survey by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, most South Africans feel that "race relations have either stayed the same or deteriorated" since the first democratic elections in 1994.
‘Broad' equality law fails to criminalize racism
Legal expert Emma Sandleir says the current law does not directly criminalize racism. "The definition of hate speech at the moment in the equality act refers to any content which is hateful or harmful, or incite violence on any of the protected grounds, race, gender, sexual orientation," she told DW. "Arguably this is so broad that it's unconstitutional, but is this hateful and is it harmful? Absolutely."
The ANC is now calling for a new law that provides hasher punishments for racist comments. Since the party has an absolute majority in parliament, this legislation could be pushed through quickly.