South Africa’s ruling party aims to criminalize racism

Beach goers celebrate New Year’s Day in Durban, South Africa.
Beach goers celebrate New Year’s Day in Durban, South Africa.
Image: Reuters/Rogan Ward
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South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress, has called for a law criminalizing racism in the country, after a Facebook post complaining about black beach goers went viral and sparked outrage in the country.

The latest uproar over race relations in the country began when real estate agent Penny Sparrow complained in a post (Jan. 2) of litter left on a beach from New Year’s celebrations, blaming black revelers who she described as uneducated “monkeys.” Sparrow, who is also a member of the opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, later apologized for the post, denying she was racist but continuing to defend her position. She has since been suspended from the DA, which also plans to lay criminal charges against her for “crimen injuria,” the act of ”unlawfully and intentionally impairing the dignity or privacy of another person.”

The post received widespread media attention and inspired pained commentary about the limits of free speech and the continuing presence of racist attitudes in the country, almost 22 years after the end of apartheid.

Citing this and other incidences, Moloto Mothapo, the ANC’s spokesman in parliament, released a statement Tuesday saying the party wants “specific legislation” criminalizing “any act that perpetuates racism or glorifies apartheid.”

“Current legislative provisions are not sufficient to punish and dissuade racists,” the statement read. The ANC will: “investigate creating a specific law or amending the existing legislation to ensure that acts of racism and promotion of apartheid are criminalized and punishable by imprisonmnent.”

“We can no longer as a nation tolerate such dehumanizing violations, where Black majority are treated as subhumans and are referred to as monkey, baboons and other derogatory racist epithets in the land of their birth,” the statement said.

South Africa’s constitution mandates equality between the races and prohibits unfair discrimination on the basis of “race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.” The constitution also protects freedom of expression, but not “advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.”

Sparrow’s post and others that reflect racist attitudes “have again highlighted how troubled and un-reconciled the Rainbow Nation is,” writes Daily Maverick columnist Andrew Ihsaan Gasnolar, and ”how comfortable [people] must feel to spew forth this vitriol.”