I have been writing about issues of racism for years now, but I have seldom felt so winded; so physically nauseated – as I did when I read those hateful words written by now infamous people.
The irony is that at the time the story broke I was enjoying our annual family holiday in the Kruger National Park. All the way around that beautiful place my wife and I were marvelling at how diverse it has become. Not so long ago – I’m talking 4 or 5 years back – it was practically all white and very conservative, to its great shame. Not anymore. All races, ages, adoptive families like ours, gay, straight you name it, we all swam together; our children made friends; we shared drinks on New Year’s Eve; we stopped and pointed out animal sightings. It was the first year in many that we felt that things had really turned and that the place was now moving towards being truly inclusive and representative.
When you are in Kruger you don’t usually stop for a Sparrow. But we did this time. She stopped us in our tracks. What we were reading on social media and in the news was just so utterly contradictory to the South Africa that we were relishing. Over the days that followed we spoke a great deal about the issues at stake. I read all the angry articles, Tweets and Facebook posts. I joined the majority of right-thinking people from South Africa and the world in my condemnation of what had been said. But a piece of the puzzle was missing; a big piece.
The discourse surrounding the whole affair began to change slightly and this is when it dawned on me; the issue is not simply the racist ravings of people like Penny Sparrow, Velaphi Khumalo or Justin van Vuuren.
Now please let me reiterate; I – like millions of other South Africans – deplore and reject all words and actions that hurt or demean others in any way. However isn’t this response a little too easy; perhaps a touch convenient given the enormity of what has been said? As sane, rational people of all races, we get to talk about the Penny Sparrows of this world. We get to write columns and blogs and Facebook posts voicing our disgust and in some cases our deep shame. This is all well, good and necessary. But does our indignation not become a spotlight that we turn on ‘those racists’ and away from ourselves?
And here is the big issue for me personally: I fight every day for equality. I write and I talk and I argue against racism constantly. I have a black child. I have beautiful, amazing black and Indian friends and colleagues whom I adore. I often publically share my frustrations with my own white self; my stuck-up, self-important, over-hasty, too direct self.
However, the question I must honestly and vulnerably ask myself, is if on a racism scale of 1 to 10 Penny Sparrow is a 12 – then where am I? I have written in this column before that ending racism begins with you and me; the painful, ongoing journey that each of us must embark on to face our prejudices head-on and get healed, and that if we are to be brutally honest with ourselves then we are all recovering racists who exist somewhere on that scale.
If these issues end with us simply venting our collective spleen against the blatant racists amongst us then surely we have missed an opportunity to turn the spotlight of those vile ramblings back onto ourselves in order that we might face up to our own prejudices and progress further down that racism scale towards zero. Imagine if we all did this? Now that would deal racism a proper blow.
Again let’s be clear; we must deal decisively with all hate speech and the people who speak it. They will undoubtedly face the full and legitimate anger of the citizenry and they must face the full might of the law. But then what? Where does that leave you and me; the racists in recovery? No further down the road of recovery than we were before Penny Sparrow.
For her the beach became the big issue. What is the issue – big or small – for you? I am not asking this question of whites only. I am asking this question of all South Africans. And if your answer is, “I am not a racist”, then I would humbly suggest that you have the furthest to go.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
This column is dedicated to the memory of 17 year old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered, and our Mozambican brother Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.