Gwen Ngwenya On #PennySparrow

People have privately and publicly asked what I think of Gwen Ngwenya’s, “The Response To Penny Sparrow Was Not Rational.”

For length, I will only allude to some of her points.

Ngwenya says that Sparrow is a non-entity.  She cannot understand why social media would treat her as a specimen of widespread structural racism and white supremacy.  Sparrow is far from unique or insignificant.

That Sparrow knows some “thoughtful” black people may mean that in her life, she’s the arbiter of which black people get to be treated with dignity and which don’t.  Can we imagine the damage someone who thinks like that can inflict as she goes about her daily life?  Ngwenya’s piece intimates that there’s no need to imagine.  For all intents and purposes, Sparrow’s existence (along with her racism) neatly began when she started typing that Facebook post.  And we should have serenely let it fade back into the oblivion from which it came once she’d posted it.  Then, it would remain the victimless crime we should see it as.

But is Ngwenya correct?  What if Sparrow was not just exposing a momentary thought?  Her post is probably part of a pattern of harm against those black people over whom she enjoys financial or professional dominance.

Minimize Sparrow and disconnect her post from harm that’s been perpetrated on black people in the past, and we suddenly have no explanation for why some black people have little access to the economy, centres of cultural development, sporting facilities, academia, the arts – and why there therefore no “intellectual tradition of the black individual” in whatever sense Ngwenya meant that.

At no point does Ngwenya explain where the victims of apartheid should have received the material justice to move beyond where apartheid left them.  She indicates they should have used their post-1994 liberty to embrace individuality and develop a strong-enough sense of self to put racist actions in perspective, as though that racism has no impact on whether its victim get hold of the tools with which to do this.

If apartheid and colonialism were grand-scale crimes against humanity, hate speech is an indication that the speaker would voluntarily form a link in the chain from speech back to the systemic, broad-scale crime.  Which were the miners shot down at Marikana not enough of: black, or fragile?  Nowhere in Ngwenya’s post could I fit our collective responsibility to victims of racism like the black boy who was asked to leave the pool as a “sign of respect” to other bathers.  How strong a sense of self would a kid need to have to shrug that off?

It is important to deal hate crime (no matter how seemingly minor) because once a perpetrator has been committed one on someone who shares a characteristic with a particular group, that perpetrator will have the courage to move on to bigger acts with disastrous consequences for subsequent victims.

Whatever hate crime we’re talking about, it takes an especially inward-looking mind to think that “the individual” should lean on his or her “sense of self” to protect him from the  hate speech that anticipates the hate crimes.  If the lesser is tolerated, the greater comes.  I cannot help seeing Ngwenya’s talk of “a high degree of an individual self, such that when another black person is criticized you don’t feel vicariously insulted” as anything except her abdicating social responsibility.  In the end, that’s between her and her conscience, or her God, or whatever she holds sacred.

She thinks the reaction to Sparrow took from her more than she had taken from others.  “I couldn’t stand by and watch them take away from her more than she took from me” is Ngwenya’s explanation for why “the punishment” should fit “the crime” and why racists shouldn’t have to lose their jobs and public standing.  As though racism is not the reason many black people have no jobs or public standing.  Mercy makes us human, but that doesn’t mean wrongdoers are entitled to it.

If someone steals, we do not feel it’s enough to take the thing back or take something of equal value from that person.  We lock thieves behind bars not just for a period equal to how much time it took to commit the crime.  A gunman who holds people hostage for 12 hours isn’t jailed for 12 hours.  The time length is influenced by the need to protect the community from the criminal.  In fact, the sentence may be influenced (within parameters) by how frequent theft is becoming in a given community so that copycat thieves might think twice.

If we applied Ngwenya’s sentencing across hate speech and the hate crime it points to – or to any crime, since she idiomatically drew a parallel to the logic of sentencing criminals for crimes – we wouldn’t have a criminal justice system because relative to how crimes are actually punished, most criminals would get a slap on the wrist.

Then there’s the remorse aspect.  Cain’s, “My punishment is more than I can bear!” indicates that he doesn’t regret killing Abel or lying to God about it.  Unrepentant, Sparrow issued what Angelo Fick described as a “non-apology apology.”  We can rest assured that she remains a menace to those black people she will exercise influence over.  Explain to racists why racism is wrong and let them get on with their lives?  That would be irrational.

Ngwenya then speaks of “the dishonesty of identity politics” and of the blurring between indulgence and empathy.  This line in particular signifies an admirable tough-love A-type personality: “When black identity is so fragile it requires a perverse mollycoddling to take place and exaggerated responses to incidences that are capable [sic] of simple rationalization.”  But even this glimmer of insight is tainted by the other errors in her approach to this issue.

And while it’s good to treat people as individuals as Ngwenya advises, my unique self-expression may not overcome what racist people already believe about black people.  And though their awareness of how groups have traditionally been discriminated against shouldn’t colour the whole of non-racist interactions, it shouldn’t be left out completely either.

Ngwenya then names white people who supposedly try to educate other white South Africans on how to interact with black people – Gillian Schuttes and Scott Burnetts – but she doesn’t give examples of the behavior she finds problematic.  She doesn’t quote or give contexts; she just accuses.  Must we then take it on her word that these white individuals exhibit the hypersensitivity Helen Zille was met with when she used the word “refugees”?  By accounting for her thoughts in the Zille instance but not doing so with Schutte and Burnett, she casts the people who reacted to Zille in the same intellectual light as Schutte and Burnett.  This oversight may have been unintentional on Ngwenya’s part, but she ends up doing what she accuses these others of doing: painting individuals with the same brush.

She says, “It does not bother me that my intellectual influences are mostly white men, what resonated where [sic] the ideas.”  Would it bother her if she met those white men, and some of them expressed disdain that a black woman was trying to grasp their theories?  She may want to only find a “colourless and sexless” self reflected in the world of ideas.  But in the real world, she may need a framework to address prejudice should her gender and race refuse to disappear from the room.  As for her being able to read in the first place – there was a time, not to long ago in many places, when black women could not get the opportunity to learn how because they were black women.  The fact that she finds a generic “colourless and sexless” self repeatedly reflected in the ideas of white men isn’t an innocent coincidence.  Nor has it been because black women were voluntarily absorbed in something else while the white men did all the cerebral heavy-lifting.

She supports the acknowledgement of the work and findings of black academics but “but on the basis of intellectual integrity not as atonement or a psychological exercise.”  Intellectual integrity is not perceived in a vacuum.  I know of two women (who don’t know each other) who could not finish the practical aspect of the same course at the same place, years apart, because they were aggressively sexually harassed or very vulnerable to the possibility.  Likewise, black academics may be underestimated.

Hours before writing this, I sat next in a live TV studio audience next to a white female final-year medicine student whose Zambian clinical partner is often told by patients that they refuse to be treated by her because she’s a foreigner/female/black.  I guess while Ngwenya looks for her colourless and sexless self in abstract ideas, this woman will be turning to her strong “sense of self” to help her cope with this perennial discrimination and its impact on her psyche in an already high-pressure environment.  Sure, Ngwenya has not encouraged anyone to show this discrimination but she’s done something as harmful: she’s dissed attempts to bring these attitudes and their effects into the light.  The bodies of people who’ve fought for her to have a platform and a voice are barely in their graves yet, and Ngwenya’s already used that platform and that voice to reassure the powerful and privileged who benefitted from the system that victimised those liberators that the work is done when it’s just beginning.

Ngwenya concedes that, “If there are bodies of literary works, histories and innovations that we do not know of because of imperialistic oversight then of course academic institutions should seek to uncover them and have them included in curricula.”

Imperialistic oversight?  If that was a euphemism, it’s an insult to the hard work of colonialist genocidalists whose intention was to destroy and bring misery.  So we should not hold our breath for institutions “to seek to uncover” the works of the marginalised.

Oh, and another thing: if a sentence has the words, “then of course” in it, it may be because the writer would be embarrassed if he has neglected to pay lip service to whatever is then said.  You decide.

“But the power to govern oneself and be the curator of your own feelings and value systems is available under all regimes.  Enormous pressures can be placed on that power by external forces but it cannot be taken away.”

Then at which point is taking someone’s life or destroying their sanity tantamount to taking away his power to govern himself?  I’m not sure whether history’s abundant torture victims would appreciate this sanitised intellectualisation made in the midst of what Ngwenya admits is a “most favourable” external environment for individual definition.  And torture is run-of-the-mill in oppressive regimes.

It appears with the room to define oneself must come the self-given right to whitewash history until it makes room for us to define a self unburdened by political or social responsibility to anyone but those who have a vested interest in the whitewash.


Siya Khumalo blogs about religion, politics and sex; he has also written a book (#TheUnveiledFacesProject coming soon).

Please share and follow @SKhumalo1987 and also contact


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