Penny Sparrow: When racism backlash turns violent

A record 100 000 holiday-makers flocked to Durban’s beachfront on New Year’s Day, prompting Penny Sparrow’s controversial remarks. (Jackie Clausen, Gallo)

A record 100 000 holiday-makers flocked to Durban’s beachfront on New Year’s Day, prompting Penny Sparrow’s controversial remarks. (Jackie Clausen, Gallo)

Her contact details have been shared all over social media, and people have SMSed, called and emailed Penny Sparrow about her Facebook post referring to black people as monkeys. While Sparrow has crimen injuria charges pending against her, the incident has also raised questions about online privacy and harassment.

Sparrow’s details were obtained from her profile on the website of Jawitz Properties, her former employer, and shared online. From there, people began sharing screenshots of the WhatsApp messages they had sent her, some mocking and others threatening her with violence.

After Sparrow, Justin van Vuuren also made inflammatory remarks on Facebook that went viral.

While white South Africans have been scrutinised for racism following the Sparrow and Van Vuuren posts, Velaphi Khumalo, an employee at the Gauteng sports, arts, culture and recreation department, raised eyebrows with his Facebook post that declared his desire to “cleanse the country of all white people”.

Some defended Khumalo’s call for violence, saying black people, as targets of discrimination, have the right to choose how they react to such discrimination.

Sparrow’s post about black people leaving Durban beaches strewn with litter after their New Year’s Day festivities provoked an outcry. Allegedly included among the thousands of accusations of racism levelled against her were death threats.

The Protection from Harassment Act defines harassment as directly or indirectly engaging in behaviour that the perpetrator should know “causes harm or inspires the reasonable belief that harm may be caused to the complainant or a related person” through unreasonable action, such as physically stalking them or sending abusive messages.

This conduct can include “engaging in verbal, electronic or any other communication aimed at the complainant or a related person, by any means, whether or not conversation ensues”. The complainant, the Act states, can apply for a protection order on these grounds.

Van Vuuren also saw his cellphone number being shared. But, said Siphiwe Segodi, of the Freedom of Expression Institute, the difference is Sparrow’s details were already available in the public domain.

“What should be determined is whether or not there is any criminality in making that public information easily available through sharing it on social media,” said Segodi.

Last year, the Equality Court told singer Sunette Bridges to remove all posts from her Facebook page that constituted hate speech or racism.

The South African Human Rights Commission is investigating Sparrow and has said South Africans should lodge a complaint if they see any discriminatory posts.

Ra'eesa Pather

Ra'eesa Pather

Ra’eesa Pather is a general news journalist with the Mail & Guardian’s online team. She cut her teeth at The Daily Vox in Cape Town before moving to Johannesburg and joining the M&G. She's written about memory, race and gender in columns and features, and has dabbled in photography. Read more from Ra'eesa Pather

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