Guest Column

Why the k-word is not 'just the k-word'

2018-04-04 10:31
Vicki Momberg appears in the Randburg Magistrate's Court to apply for leave to appeal her jail sentence. She was found guilty on four counts of crimen injuria after uttering racial slurs at police officers in Johannesburg. (Photo: Iavan Pijoos)

Vicki Momberg appears in the Randburg Magistrate's Court to apply for leave to appeal her jail sentence. She was found guilty on four counts of crimen injuria after uttering racial slurs at police officers in Johannesburg. (Photo: Iavan Pijoos)

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Aeysha Kassiem

I was nine years old the first time someone called me a k****r. He walked right up to me, spat at my feet and blurted it in my face. My worth discarded with a single word, the message was clear.

Some 13 years later as a young reporter, I covered the case of a black Old Mutual employee, Xolile Finca, who had taken the company and his white, Afrikaans colleague, Jenny Burger to the Labour Court over a racial slur.

The grievance? Burger, upon seeing the company's new floor plan for an open plan office, was overheard by another employee asking the head of department, "Why are you putting me next to the k*****s?" Burger had been referencing two black employees – of which Finca, represented by the SA Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu) – was one.

While the matter was initially taken up with Old Mutual, the company was also taken to court for its failure to deal with it effectively. When it was raised with the head of department Barbara van Zyl, employee Zorina Jeffreys, who had overheard the conversation, was told, according to court papers, not to be "overly concerned" by the remark. When Afrikaans people used the word, it was "not necessarily in a derogatory sense", Van Zyl allegedly told her. Burger was eventually given a verbal warning following an informal disciplinary hearing.

While the trial went back and forth between the he-saids and she-saids, it only really came to a head when union representative, Susani Tomsana, who had worked at the company for ten years, told the court the weight of what it meant to be called a k****r.

Sitting in the witness stand, he addressed Judge Elna Revelas in a soft but clear voice.

"My lady," he said. "There are people who have died (for the right) not to be called k*****s. There are people who have been hanged in our courts (for the right) not to be called k*****s."

There was silence in the courtroom before there wasn't.

People sobbed in the public gallery, others left the court room, hunched over, wailing outside in the corridors.

We all sat and stared at Judge Revelas, while the sobs echoed outside. 

A year later in 2006, in what was a precedent-setting judgment on racism in the workplace, Old Mutual was found guilty of racism and was ordered to pay compensation and costs, with an instruction that Burger be dealt with "in a firm manner".

In her 20-page judgment, Judge Revelas said, "At the heart of this matter lies a view, shared by far too many people, that the word 'k****r' is not as hurtful as some others (Africans in particular) would have it."

Almost two weeks to the day, in another precedent-setting case, former real estate agent Vicki Momberg was convicted and sentenced to an effective two years imprisonment for her racist rant against a police officer. She had called him a k****r almost 50 times.

It was a historic judgment for many reasons, but especially for that nine-year-old, who like so many other South Africans, was yet to find justice.

- Kassiem is news editor at News24.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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