The Randburg Magistrate Court’s sentencing of Vicki Momberg to three years in jail with one year suspended, set all Twitter and Facebook timelines alight with a mixture of jubilation and shock.
Momberg was found guilty on four counts of crimen injuria last year. This followed an incident in 2016, which was caught on camera, where Momberg was seen shouting racial slurs at a black police officer who was trying to assist her after she was a victim of an alleged smash-and-grab incident.
Momberg used the k-word a total of 48 times, first against the police officer then against the parole officer sent to write up her sentencing report after she had been charged. She appeared unrepentant after each instance of racist utterance and continued to defend herself as someone who only said the racial slur because she was angry and upset about crime in general, and in particular, the smash and grab incident she had experienced.
Many white South Africans, in particular, defended Momberg and said the sentencing was too harsh. They claimed that Momberg was not a danger to society and therefore did not deserve to be treated in the same way as rapists, murderers and other violent criminals.
Those who make this argument miss the violent nature of racism and its accompanying racist insults. Words like the k-word do not hurt because they are said in that moment alone. They hurt because they carry intergenerational trauma as they have been used for many generations to denigrate, dehumanise, and psychologically and physically oppress black people in South Africa.
In order to make the oppression of black people acceptable, it was important, first through imperialism, then colonialism then apartheid to dehumanise blacks and relegate them to a status that is even lower than that of animals in society.
Racial slurs like the k-word are one of the many weapons in a large arsenal that were used before, during and after apartheid. Racism is not a victimless crime. It is a violent crime that hurts real people in multiple ways. At an institutional and individual level it affects people of colour’s mental wellbeing, economic prospects and general quality of life. Many black people suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety and other disorders as it becomes difficult to trust fellow citizens who are white as you never know where and when a racist attack is going to come.
People of colour also feel constantly and consistently vulnerable to physical and verbal racial attacks and up until now there has been little recourse for own pain and suffering, never mind acknowledgement of harm caused.
Racism, perpetuated by institutions and individuals, suppresses the economic mobility of people of colour and therefore affects their ability to live the best life that their hard work can buy. In South Africa, it has led to generations of people of colour being unable to get and/or change jobs, unable to invest savings or seek out new opportunities or new spaces to live in.
Many laws before and during apartheid were created solely to stop people of colour from progressing above the station that the white supremacist government determined they should be at. Some of these were passed before apartheid and were merely further entrenched during apartheid.
The 1913 Land Act made sure that black people could only own 13% of the total land available in South Africa and denied them the right to buy land in most of their country of birth. The end of apartheid did not end this and, to this day, the majority of the homeless and those living in shacks and other informal structures are black. We are still embroiled in various debates around the issue of land ownership to this day because of this act.
The Natives (Urban Areas) Act No 21 of 1923, worked to regulate the presence of Africans in urban areas and ensure that they were relegated to the outskirts in African locations or townships on the outskirts of white urban and industrial areas. Most black people who move into former "whites only" suburbs still face the wrath of white neighbours who don’t think they belong to the neighbourhood, even when they have purchased their houses.
The Industrial Conciliation Act No 11 of 1924 provided job reservations for white workers and excluded blacks from membership of registered trade unions while prohibiting the registration of black trade unions. Even today the attitude of most white South Africans is against trade unions and see black people being characterised as unruly, violent savages who don’t deserve a wage increase or any of the actions they are demanding when the engage in legitimate strikes and the fight for workers’ rights.
Job reservation for whites still continues informally with white unemployment sitting at single digits compared to the rest of the population.
The Mines and Works Act (Colour Bar Act) No 25 of 1926 reinforced the earlier act of 1911 that reserved skilled work for whites only but went one step further. The 1924 Colour Bar provided certificates of competency for skilled work only for white workers. African, Coloured and Indian workers could not be certified and therefore could not be paid what they were worth. As a country we continue to feel the effects of this as we struggle with a lack of tradesmen and women of colour because they saw previous generations work hard with no rewards.
During apartheid the process of dehumanising, undermining and oppressing black people was honed in further with Bantu education laws which ensured that blacks received sub-standard education in order to reinforce the stereotype that blacks are stupid and incompetent. Blacks were also denied the right to attend university unless they applied for special permission, which was often denied. This again served to reinforce white intellectual superiority because if all the people you see at higher institutions are white, it becomes easier to believe that the reason blacks are not there is because they are not intellectually capable.
As a result of everything outlined above, black people to this day have to work extra hard at schools, universities, the corporate sector and other areas of society to prove that they are not dumb, incompetent or subhuman. This is an emotionally and physically exhausting process that takes away from us as black people, the ability to be more even more productive and just enjoy South Africa and all it has to offer.
- Asanda Ngoasheng is an academic and transformation expert.
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