In South Africa you can be fined for making racist remarks

Words hurt.
Words hurt.
Image: Reuters/Mike Hutchings
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Penny Sparrow, a retired real estate agent from South Africa’s coastal KwaZulu-Natal province, was fined 5,000 rand (about $344) and given a suspended two-year prison sentence for making racist remarks on Facebook earlier this year.

“It is difficult to put into words the regret I feel. I will from now on strive to be a better citizen respecting others, working towards making our country a better place to live in. A place we can be accepting of each other. A place we can all call home,” she said Sept. 12 at the Scottburgh Magistrate’s court in the town of Umzinto.

On her Facebook page in January, Sparrow had blamed black South Africans, described as uneducated “monkeys,” for leaving litter on a beach in Durban after the New Year holiday. Her post caused an uproar over freedom of speech and the state of race relations in a country that enforced racial segregation from 1948 until 1994 through its system of apartheid.

Sparrow pleaded guilty to the charge of crimen injuria, defined as the act of “unlawfully and intentionally impairing the dignity or privacy of another person.” The charge has been applied to cases ranging from road rage to stalking. Over the past decade the number of crimen injuria cases has fallen but the charge is increasingly being deployed in incidents of racist speech.

Police in Johannesburg filed crimen injuria charges against a woman who referred to black police officers by a racial slur in February. In May, educators and journalists filed separate charges against a high court judge Mabel Jansen who wrote on Facebook that rape is inherent in black culture.

On social media, Sparrow’s fine was criticized as too low. “Racism is cheap,” one user commented.

Advocates and lawmakers worry the crimen injuria charge is not harsh enough. A draft bill on hate crimes that would punish offenders for their motives as well as their actions includes hate speech as a criminal offense. Lawmakers are expected to debate the legislation later this month.