In December 2015 South Africa had a collective heart murmur. The sudden dismissal of finance minister Nhlanhla Nene by President Jacob Zuma plunged the stock exchange, currency and business confidence into free-fall. At first the presidency refused to explain the decision, but then the media claimed that Nene was fired for standing his ground against powerful interests who wished to bleed the country’s finances. Worse still, his replacement had little experience and a poor track record as a municipal manager.
In these bleak moments unity awoke in our hearts, mass protests were planned and an online movement #zumamustfall emerged. The pressure forced the president to backtrack and re-appoint the former finance minister Pravin Gordhan, who has much goodwill among the business community. This was a victory for people power, a classic case of crisis turned to opportunity. We went off for our festive season holidays giddy with the optimism of what a united South Africa might accomplish in 2016. But our hopes were short-lived. On the 4th of January we awoke the to biggest social media race controversy in our history. An ignominious white real estate agent, Penny Sparrow, from Kwa-Zulu Natal claimed to be so provoked by the litter on Durban’s beaches after the new year’s day revelry that she saw fit to label the mostly black beachgoers as monkeys on social media.
Another white resident, Justin Van Vuuren posted that “these animals should go back where they come from”. Almost simultaneously a prominent economist, Chris Hart, tweeted that after 25 years of apartheid there was more hatred and sense of entitlement than ever among the victims. The response on Twitter has been phenomenal, with many South Africans across the colour line condemning Sparrow often with the hashtag #pennymustfall. Van Vuuren and Hart have not escaped the ire of social media or the bloggers, but Penny Sparrow is witch of the day in a society that struggles with racism and sexism.
Power and entitlement
There is a deeper, darker side to the offensive tweets from Sparrow, van Vuuren and others. Aside from dehumanising fellow citizens with animal expletives, there lurks a strong sense of power and entitlement in the tone of their words. They still see public spaces such as the beach as “our beach" and feel at liberty to decide who uses it and how they use it. So who is “our”? This is not the usual provincial antipathy of KwaZulu-Natal residents towards the inland invaders from Gauteng Province, who descend in droves to the coast during December. It cannot be all the residents of greater Durban because that would include the people who are rebuked in the posts. Van Vuuren goes further to suggest that “our promenade should be private”. In the democratic South Africa we can use the market instead of the old colour bar legislation to segregate public spaces. The Indian Ocean city of East London has a small private section on its waterfront. A nominal fee of ZAR 10 (US$ 0.70) per person should be enough to keep the folks from the historically black townships at home and out of the way. Are there not enough “private” restaurants, malls, aquariums, marinas, casinos and nightclubs in a large city like Durban? Must the beaches be included, by disadvantaging those who rely on free public spaces for some New Year’s Day fun?
Sparrow and a man known as Louis readily declared that they do not like sharing the beach with black-skinned individuals. Neither will acknowledge that it’s their own prejudice against black people that keeps them off the beach on New Year’s Day. They are yearning for the good old days when the beaches were segregated and bore the infamous sign Whites Only. They felt safer, there were no crowds and they could forget that they live in Africa, in a developing country. In those days Louis felt he got his money’s worth when holidaying in the resort town Margate, now he believes his thousands of Rand are wasted because the beaches are multi-racial and congested. Apartheid South Africa is seen as normal and the current situation is “a shame” in Sparrow’s view. She might possibly relent to permit educated people of colour on the beach.
There is no cognisance of the Bantu education policies of the apartheid government which provided substandard education for blacks and contributed to the real and perceived racial disparities in education. Although the African National Congress government has had 25 years to rectify this imbalance, they have not been very successful by the minister of basic education’s own admission of corruption and other problems in this sector. There was little that could be done for older generations and reforming such an iniquitous system as well as integrating a number of different examination bodies was a mammoth challenge with no easy solutions. Still, there have been many mistakes which can be laid at the ruling party’s door. Education and the environment, like the market, can potentially become the new tools of segregation in a democracy.
Another social media user made a comment about the rights of “white tax payers”. This is a recurring sentiment which ignores the extensive legislation and policies designed to exclude or marginalise the participation of black South Africans in the economy. In 2013 the historically white trade union, Solidarity, estimated that out of the 13.7 million registered tax payers, only 3.3 million paid 99% of the personal income tax which was collected. They pointed out that in a population of around 50 million only 3.3 million were carrying the personal income tax burden. The June 2014 Labour Force Survey estimated that the working age population (the number of people eligible to work, aged 15 – 64) was just over 35 million. There were 10.8 million people employed in formal, non-agricultural work.
Given that the majority of the informal workers were micro-traders who barely earned a living and were likely to be below the taxable threshold, they should not be taken into account. Thus roughly one in three of the formal sector workers contributed to personal income tax revenue, which comprised around 34% of all tax revenue. Value added tax which is paid by all consumers, even the poorest of the poor, contributed 25% while corporate taxes constituted a further 25% of all tax revenue. According to the June 2014 Labour Force Survey, the unemployment rate by race was as follows: Black 29%, Coloured 25%, Indian 12% and white 8%. There is no available data on the demographic profile of taxpayers, but the unemployment rates suggest that if whites were paying more of the taxes it may be because more of them had a job. Yet blacks are often vilified as untaxable free-riders who have less right to benefit from public services.
The common denominator is that education, privatisation, taxation and even the environment can be misused to advocate for some form of pseudo-segregation along racial and class lines. Therefore do not be too surprised if those who are or feel excluded shift their allegiance to parties such as the Economic Freedom Fighters or budding radical movements. These organisations threaten to break the institutions of privilege in the name of equality or economic freedom. The resentment that Hart fears and the calls to nationalise the banks are the unfortunate result of a long history of separate development which encompassed economic and social exclusion. We cannot change the past, but we can pay more attention to cultivate or at least emphasise inclusivity in our institutions and thinking. There will always be a few vocal racists, but a more inclusive and cohesive society has greater wherewithal to cope with prejudice. If the rainbow is fading it is our responsibility to repair it.
*Zenobia Ismail  is doing a PhD in Politics and International Studies. Picture credit: Wikipedia.