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South Africa rings in new year with racial slurs. A tipping point?

A series of racist comments posted online have angered South Africans and led to calls for legal action. The controversy sparked the viral hashtag, #RacismMustFall.

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Beach goers celebrate New Year's Day at the ocean in Durban, South Africa, January 1, 2016.

REUTERS/Rogan Ward

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South Africa is grappling with a series of incidents that have laid bare the racial divisions that continue to plague the country – especially online – more than two decades after the end of apartheid.

Racism has been top news in the rainbow nation this week after Penny Sparrow, a real estate broker from Durban, posted a complaint on Facebook Monday about a mess left behind on a beach by black revelers over New Year's.

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These monkeys that are allowed to be released on New Year’s eve and New Year’s day on to public beaches towns etc obviously have no education what so ever [sic],” she wrote in the post, which went viral. “So to allow them loose is inviting huge dirt and troubles and discomfort to others.” 

Soon after, a similarly racist post by fitness entrepreneur Justin van Vuuren, in which he called black South Africans “animals” for the state in which the same beach was left, also went viral.

Separately, Standard Bank Group, Africa's largest lender, suspended one of its leading economists, Chris Hart, on Monday for remarks that the bank described as having "racist undertones." Like the others' posts, his went viral on social media, as did the hashtag #RacismMustFall. All three individuals later apologized.

The ruling African National Congress (ANC), which led the struggle against apartheid, said Tuesday it was pursuing legal action against Ms. Sparrow and others who have posted racist remarks online. “The circulation of such bigoted comments have the potential for causing irreparable harm to the dignity and reputations of individuals and social groups," said an ANC spokesman, Zizi Kodwa.

The Democratic Alliance, the main opposition party of which Sparrow is a member, said it too would brings charges against her.

The ANC also said it would file a complaint with the South African Human Rights Commission, which said Monday it would begin investigations into racial slurs online.

But for many, the political response seems hollow in a country where the undercurrent of racism can be felt everywhere, especially on social media, in comments like Sparrow’s. A December survey by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) found that most South Africans felt "race relations have either stayed the same or deteriorated" since the first democratic elections in 1994, Agence France-Presse reports. 

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"It is very concerning to the Commission that 22 years into democracy there are still comments and actions that incite and promote racism,” said Isaac Mangena of the Human Rights Commission, which has said its own investigation may lead to legal action. "These utterances have gone viral and angered many. They open the wounds of millions who were formerly oppressed by the apartheid government."

Many on social media said Sparrow's comments were not surprising, but indicative of the type of language that can be found online today. In an opinion piece published in South Africa's Daily Vox, executive editor Azad Essa writes that South Africans should "not pretend Penny Sparrow's diatribe is an anomaly":

As outrageous as these posts were, let's be honest, none of the sentiments expressed by the trio are particularly shocking. Sparrow's sentiment about blacks misbehaving is really not that surprising and so too, Chris Hart's mumblings. All three have merely articulated opinions about black people that are all too common in powerful circles in South Africa....

There is a toxic mix of race and class that pervades the way South Africa is structured.

According to the Los Angeles Times, writing about the IJR survery findings, "61.4% of South Africans felt that race relations since the end of white minority rule in 1994 had either remained the same or deteriorated. More than 60% said they experienced racism in their daily lives and more than 67% said they had little or no trust in people of other racial groups."

An additional 13 percent of black South Africans surveyed said they experienced racism all or most of the time.

As for whether Sparrow could face legal sanctions, South Africa’s Mail & Guardian reports that:

“While the South African Constitution makes very little reference to ‘hate speech’, it prohibits speech that propagates for war; incitement of imminent violence; or advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm,” said Nomagugu Nyathi, a researcher at the Freedom of Expression Institute....

Nyathi added that Sparrow can be tried in a court of law and cases such as hers are heard by the Equality Court, which is designed to hear matters where the constitutional right to equality is alleged to have been violated. She also noted that comparing black people to monkeys is widely considered derogatory and there have been previous cases where perpetrators have been asked to issue formal apologies or engage in a remedy as stipulated by the court.