HAJI MOHAMED DAWJEE: Penny Sparrow, you die the way you live


The gravestone cannot be wiped clean of treachery after death. Or can it?

Today we heard that Penny Sparrow had died of lung cancer. The only reason her death made headlines is because a couple of years ago, her life, her actions, made headlines as well.

While compassion is necessary in death, accountability is required to live a good life, to die a good person with a clear conscience, but death gives no voice to the transgressor, and so they die the way they lived. In Sparrow’s case, it is the death of a racist.

But racism does not remove the pain of the loved ones left behind. Sparrow was still someone’s friend, colleague, mother, sister. Still, there is other ache to consider, and that is the sting of her words spoken that linger in the hearts and minds of those who fell victim – the “illiterate monkeys” as she called black beachgoers.

I strongly believe that in cases like these, while there is room to be empathetic towards family, it is not for the forgiver to forgive, not even in death. Passing does not absolve you, nor should it.

Sparrow was criminally charged for her racist social media post in 2016, and she was ordered to pay a fine of R150,000 to the Adelaide Tambo Foundation. But introspection is priceless right and it’s something Sparrow could not afford. When she issued a statement after the debacle, she remained clearly unrepentant, saying she just “said it how she felt it”. "I put an apology up to say I didn’t mean it personally. That day on that beach it was all black people, I’m sorry to say it, but it is a fact of life. I said it as I felt it and I know it was wrong to do it on a public thing [Facebook] like that. I don’t know how it got out and we were all saying it," Sparrow said.

Sparrow made no effort to reconcile, and without reconciliation, is forgiveness possible?

Dr Robert Enright, the author of The Forgiving Life, writes that even though the person who has wronged society is longer among the living, the “wounds of the past still can be very much present in those left behind”. Forgiveness, as a cure for resentment, is almost impossible without remorse because the deceased person cannot show remorse in any way, so the responsibility of reconciliation now lies in the hands of the living - the ones who have been wronged, and it’s not so much a responsibility as a burden. One which people of colour have long been expected to carry, alone.

Enright offers the “family burying the hatchet” expression as an example. When we bury people, we don’t necessarily bury their transgressions, those live on for a long time. Maya Angelou once said people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

Enright also writes that forgiving the dead can resurrect wounded hearts and minds and instil hope in the psychological wellbeing to “those left behind in an imperfect world”.

An existential question has made its way around segregated societies: Does racism end when bigots die? And does the fate of race relations lie with the children? This notion has existed for generations - as Martin Luther King Jr. eloquently put it in his I Have a Dream speech: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

So, does no more Penny Sparrow mean no more “illiterate monkeys” – because of the colour of their skin? This “equal” future is, of course, only possible if our progeny are taught values that current and past generations have failed to uphold. But how will we know what values to share, what the premise of right and wrong is, what a world with a little less racism looks like, if we don’t remember what it does look like to being with, and those who’ve openly practiced it? Perhaps the perpetuation of forgiveness, even after the death, is the root cause of present turmoil, it is a counter-intuitive and shallow action misused as a tool for reconciliation, but it does not heal. Just look around you. In fact, you need not look further than Sparrow’s comments.

It’s a difficult dichotomy, forgiveness in death is not necessarily wrong, but in this instance, and many like it, it can’t be right either, can it? We cannot misuse the virtue of forgiveness, we cannot forgive those who did not repudiate racist belief systems and own up to the pain they caused. Perhaps this turmoil is just where we need to be in the hope of moving forward. Again, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr: Where do we from here, chaos or community? The choice has always been ours, - let’s hope that in time, we make the right one”.

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of 'Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa'. Follow her on Twitter.