Penny Sparrow: Racism's sacrificial lamb

Institutionalised race hatred: A white cop attacks a black demonstrator outside the Johannesburg city hall in 1961 during the Verwoerd era. (Gallo)

Institutionalised race hatred: A white cop attacks a black demonstrator outside the Johannesburg city hall in 1961 during the Verwoerd era. (Gallo)

What is shocking about South Africa’s response to the Penny Sparrow race debacle is the “shock” itself. This ritualised shock each time a blatant act of racism is committed exposes the deep denial about the fact that our society is anti-black and racist.

I recall the rage against the University of Free State students, who humiliated and demeaned black cleaning staff a few years back. The incident came and went, but the racism remained.

This denial of racism is based on a lie that was hatched in 1994 by our political leaders and christened the “rainbow nation” by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
It was a rickety Humpty Dumpty put together by a series of unethical strategies and lies.

However, the deception is not sustainable.  The shaky foundations of this powerful lie get shattered each time someone strays out of line and speaks the unguarded truth, such as we have seen with Sparrow and economist Chris Hart.

There is now a scramble to put Humpty Dumpty together again. The Democratic Alliance and the ANC compete to have Sparrow punished but say nothing about the foundations of racism that make it possible in the first place.

Sparrow seems genuinely surprised, distressed and disorientated by the avalanche of negative responses she received to her racist tweet. Her apology was met by an even bigger rage, despite her professed philanthropy among needy blacks. She then threw her hands in the air and proclaimed: “But I’m telling the truth, we all say it.”  She poured out more love that equated blacks with “cute” but “naughty monkeys”. This drove whites and blacks into an even bigger frenzy.

Sparrow and other whites will ultimately learn that 1994 created “racism without racists” – in other words, it’s OK to have a racist society, but just don’t say it publicly because then you expose the underbelly of the system that keeps everybody believing in the lie.

The likes of Sparrow are myth busters who destroy the deception concocted by the Nobel prize-winning Madiba-De Klerk-Tutu trio.

South African racism has now found a natural rhythm to reconstitute itself every time it is destabilised by the truth. White society, the beneficiary of racism, perform what Professor Neely Fuller calls “white sacrificing”, which is described in part as: “Like in any army or any military operation, you know you’re gonna have some losses. So some white people are written off, under the system of white supremacy.”

Part of this reconstitution of white racism back to its normative stability is to hold the “offending” individual out as the sacrificial lamb so that the majority of white people are spared the responsibility of accounting. De Klerk and his apartheid killer machine cleansed themselves of all responsibility by sacrificing death squad supremo Eugene de Kock.

He dangled on the cross alone as the Jesus Christ of all white people’s sins.  Whites spat on him as the devil incarnate. This is what Steve Biko called the totality of white power: they act on both sides of the evil continuum, appearing at once as both perpetrators and managers of black people’s reaction to the kick.

Sparrow is the sacrificial lamb of white racism in 2016.  The king of whites, FW de Klerk, took upon himself the task of offering her to the Gods of racism so that the whole white nation could be absolved. Speaking through his foundation, he said: “The trouble with Sparrow’s remarks is that they reinforce black stereotypes of whites as insensitive and supercilious racists. These stereotypes are also unfair and further erode relationships between our communities.”

Here De Klerk castigates Sparrow for exposing the mechanics of racism. She is speaking out of turn. To remedy this faux pas, he turns the burden to blacks and blames us for holding unfair stereotypes against whites. This is the worst kind of denialism and white arrogance.

De Klerk is correctly worried about the “erosion of relationships” because this affects undisturbed white domination under democratic protection. The destabilising truth Sparrow speaks is turned into a lie by De Klerk, who called on Sparrow to give an “unqualified apology”. We do well to remember that De Klerk himself has never given an unqualified apology for apartheid.

De Klerk holds the same beliefs as Sparrow with regard to blacks.  That is why he can say: “We should seek to understand and appreciate one another’s cultures and should treat everyone with the respect that we would like them to show to us.” Decoded, this simply means: “Blacks are monkeys but don’t say it, it’s their culture to do all those things you say they do. Just tolerate it; after all, you have the beaches and the city to yourself for the rest of the year.”

De Klerk understands how “racism without racists” functions; he is one of its architects. Sparrow doesn’t quite get it and for this she will be isolated and vilified, but just enough until the storm is over. In this whole saga, only Sparrow has actually been honest.  Whites who condemned her have done so to re-establish their place in the racial hierarchy that puts blacks at the bottom.

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Former National Party president FW De Klerk castigated Penny Sparrow for her racist tweet, but is guilty of racism himself, according to the writer. (AFP)

The predictable reaction of black people to individual acts of racism similarly only helps in reconstituting racism as the norm. The reaction follows a pattern of extreme rage followed by extreme apathy.  What makes this possible is that most black people, like their white counterparts, believe racism ended in 1994. The result is that we are kept busy by individual acts of racism, which we treat as aberrations instead of as the essence of our racist society.

Worse still, we blacks don’t have discursive access to the source of the racism, which has become naturalised in the law, politics, economy and society. Racism is institutionalised in South Africa – it has become a way of life. The consequence of this incapacity to fully grasp the strategies of white power leads black people to chase its symptoms. All this is exhausting and soon we let it go and wait for another episode.

The key philosophical foundation that prevents blacks from recognising racism is the notion of “nonracialism”, which is contained in the Freedom Charter and has found its way into the Constitution. The Charter declares a common humanity without demanding accountability for colonialism.

This nonracialism without justice traps whites and blacks inside a lie mistaken for a common brotherhood and limits our understanding of what makes Sparrow-like acts possible – namely, the institutionalised racism whose foundation is colonialism and which dates back to 1652 with the arrival of Europeans, who dispossessed Africans of their land.

As long as institutionalised racism exists, black people will remain victims of racism. The worst that can happen in this pressured time is the criminalisation of racism while institutional white power remains intact.  Such a move will only lead to the mass incarceration of black people as perpetrators of racism instead of its victims. This is because the practice of law is merely an expression of racist power. The law is there to protect the powerful and it always does. The foundation of South African law is Roman-Dutch and Anglo-Saxon with their constitutive anti-blackness. The West treats blacks as criminals and guilty by their mere appearance. For the law to protect blacks, it has to operate within a power arrangement that puts blacks first, in recognition of the asymmetry of power, and that is guided by the principle that “blacks can’t be racist”. Are we there yet?

To end racism, we have to go back to the beginning.  This is the conversation the ruling party is not willing to have. White supremacy in South Africa was created from land theft. A return of the land as part acknow-ledgement and part reparation would break the back of white racism at the economic level, and at the symbolic level that proceeds on the basis of white is right.

Such a move would go back to the unethical foundations of South Africa and expunge the lie of a common humanity.  Only then can we deal with the unresolved historical debts that must be paid.

As long as these underlying questions are not answered, we should expect constant outbursts of individual acts of racism followed by the usual scramble to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

There is, however, a real possibility that the victims will one day refuse to play the game and engulf us all in a black inferno that will make the annual trek to the beaches by the black hordes look like a Sunday school picnic.

  Andile Mngxitama is national convenor of the Black First Land First Movement

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