Nowhere to hide for racists like Vicki Momberg anymore

Estate agent Vicki Momberg (Felix Dlangamandla/Netwerk24)
Estate agent Vicki Momberg (Felix Dlangamandla/Netwerk24)

The two-year jail sentence handed down to former estate agent Vicki Momberg for her racist outburst towards a black policeman in 2016 is a historic and important moment for South Africa.

It is the first time (that I am aware of) that someone will be imprisoned for using racist language in our country’s history.

Momberg will likely appeal the ruling and I’d be surprised if this case doesn’t go all the way to the Constitutional Court. This is also an important moment for our jurisprudence, that incorporates the principles of reconciliation and restorative justice.

Momberg refused to accept help from Constable David Mkhondo after she fell victim to a smash-and-grab incident in Johannesburg. She used the k-word 48 times and told Mkhondo and his colleagues that the "calibre of blacks" in Johannesburg was low. In court she says she believes the k-word is not offensive "unless they (black people) feel or believe they are what they are being called".

She was found guilty on four counts of crimen injuria by the Randburg Magistrate’s Court on Wednesday and sentenced to three years imprisonment, of which one year was suspended.

Magistrate Pravina Rugoonandan said everyone had a right to dignity that needed to be respected and protected, and that Momberg had stripped the black police officers who were ready to assist her of their dignity.

It is a particularly important moment for white South Africans to reflect on Rugoonandan’s ruling.

Before you ask, "but what about Julius Malema?", pause for a moment and think.

It is simply unacceptable for any white South African to still use racist slurs like those uttered by Momberg in the year 2018. It was never acceptable, but if you still think it’s okay to use racial slurs like the k-word (also when black people are not present) 24 years after Nelson Mandela and the ANC extended a hand of friendship to their former oppressors, you have serious introspection to do – probably from your prison cell.

I am firmly of the view that the majority of white South Africans are not racist and have made serious shifts in their minds after Mandela relieved them of the burden of apartheid. I see this in my own family and circles.

There are entire new generations of white children and young people who live comfortably alongside black South Africans, want to make a contribution here, grapple with their inherited privilege and will never consider emigrating to Australia, even if they give us visas for free.

But it would be naïve to think there aren’t more Vicki Mombergs out there. Most, if not all white South Africans, have been present when an uncle or cousin, or friend, or colleague uttered something racist in a pub, around the braai or at the water cooler. Sometimes it’s the k-word; other times it’s less obvious, but just as painful.

It is no longer okay to do that – you will go to prison. It is no longer okay to stay silent if you hear that – you could be complicit in a crime.

I have seen plenty of discussions recently about the action or inaction of white people in the reconciliation project. Reconciliation, they say, is a two-way street. It cannot only be up to black people to lend a hand of friendship.

Of course there are thousands of white people who have actively participated in giving back, stepping back and changing their views over the past 24 years. Professor Jonathan Jansen calls them the "moral underground", which I will write about more soon.

It is high time this "moral underground" steps up, speaks out and makes life hard and uncomfortable for the Vicki Mombergs out there. Silence is no longer an option.

Reconciliation alone was obviously not enough to end the scourge of racism. On Wednesday morning, justice took over.

- Basson is editor of News24. Follow him on Twitter @adriaanbasson

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