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Social Media Storm Over Racist Facebook Rant Shines Light on South Africa’s Strained Race Relations

Penny-sparrow-profileHer name is Penny Sparrow and, over the course of two days, she went from being an anonymous South African real estate agent to perhaps the country’s most hated woman.

Sparrow ignited a social media storm when she posted a Facebook rant comparing black people to monkeys. The uproar has shone a spotlight into a deep racial divide more than two decades after South Africa scuttled the apartheid system that institutionalized racism.

And when Sparrow took to Facebook to apologize and local media to explain, she only made things worse.

Sparrow’s initial post Saturday insulted black people enjoying New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day on the beaches in Durban, in South Africa’s east coast province, Kwa-Zulu Natal. Beaches were strictly segregated under apartheid.

“To allow them loose is inviting huge dirt and discomfort and troubles to others,” she wrote of black people.

Complaining about rubbish left on the beach, she wrote that she would “address the blacks of South Africa as monkeys as I see cute little wild monkeys do the same [sic] pick drop and litter.”

Sparrow posted an apology on Facebook saying the comments were “not meant to be a personal thing.” Her defense of the remarks Monday in an interview with a South African news site, News 24, only made things worse. Sparrow appeared sorrier to be at the center of a viral media storm than about the offense her comments caused. She also repeated the monkey comparison.

“I am sorry that it has taken such a viral turn, but it was just a statement of how it was,” she said. “I made the mistake of comparing them with monkeys. Monkeys are cute and they’re naughty…. I wasn’t being nasty or rude or horrible, but it’s just that they make a mess. It is just how they are.”

More than two decades after the end of apartheid, racist abuse on social media and online is so commonplace that several media outlets last year shut down the comments sections under news articles.

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