Written by: Ryan Rutherford
The sentencing of Vicki Momberg to three years’ imprisonment, one year of which is suspended, in the Randburg Magistrate’s Court for a racist tirade against policemen in 2016 is an almost perfect distillation of the rank idiocy and sheer lunacy – not to mention unabashed authoritarianism – of life in contemporary South Africa.
Momberg is, with no particular respect intended, a nobody from Johannesburg who, in an emotionally distraught state after being the victim of a smash and grab, verbally abused police officers who came to her aid by repeatedly employing the k-word, roughly equivalent to the n-word in American parlance. In the South African context, though, this highly offensive term is far more freighted with dehumanising import, considering the country’s violently oppressive racial history.
Momberg is the first person to be jailed for using this infamous word, and her conviction has apparently now ushered in a new class of criminal, the “convicted racist,” a designation the media breathlessly pounced upon in near-total mind-numbing uniformity, and with what could even be described as barely suppressed glee, the zealously self-righteous tone of many reports almost seeming to suggest that some kind of war criminal had finally received their long-awaited comeuppance.
In the wake of the sentencing, National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) spokesperson Phindi Mjonondwane said that “this ruling is giving hope to all South Africans that the law is on their side,” a statement that should have been met with instant guffaws, or howls of outraged disbelief. The state’s lead prosecutor, Yusuf Baba, expressing the state’s distinctly-authoritarian character on matters of individual expression, averred that “people need to watch their tongues before they talk” as “there are consequences for your actions.” Indeed there are, for some more than others, and, most importantly, the more punitive consequences for speech acts the less free a society is, which South Africa increasingly can no longer even pretend to masquerade as.
Setting aside the merits of the case, an issue further delved into later, consider the more proximate history framing this prosecution. For instance, it has been conservatively estimated that former President Jacob Zuma stole over a trillion rand during his catastrophically corrupt tenure, not to mention mortally undermining virtually all state institutions in the wrecking ball operation that was his administration. After Zuma’s various delaying tactics and assorted lawyerly machinations, it is unlikely for him to ever truly experience any jail time of note.
By contrast, the state vigorously pursued a case against Momberg, whose conviction evidently sets a new precedent according to the NPA, which for years took an almost laughably absurd “see no evil, hear no evil” approach to Zuma’s wanton malfeasance. It certainly does set a new precedent, but an exceedingly problematic one.
(Editor’s note: Judgments of magistrates’ courts do not set binding precedent in South Africa. There is, however, an argument to be made that this has set an informal precedent for the NPA.)
Perhaps comparing the contemptible lack of pursuing Zuma with the prosecutorial vigour displayed in the Momberg case is unfair, possibly even representing a type of category error. However, if one keeps solely within the ambit of racially-charged convictions, the incidents that have prompt condemnation and censure from the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) reveal an inescapable one-sidedness that itself reflects racist selectivity.
While the list on this issue demands an article all its one, sticking to just the most recent high-profile examples, Julius Malema, the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a major political party, has openly targeted Nelson Mandela Bay Metro mayor, Athol Trollip, because he is white. Malema went even further than this racist attack on an opposing politician by venting at rally that he wanted to “decapitate whiteness.”
In light of Malema’s public profile and undeniable power, this statement could legitimately be perceived as possessing genocidal implications. Despite the head of the SAHRC admitting to receiving 17 complaints over this statement, the organisation has yet to take any actions against the EFF’s Commander-in-Chief.
If the state is to be involved in enforcing appropriate speech codes, and to tackle the perceived scourge of racism, at the very least it must act consistently. Therefore, if one is prepared to see Momberg imprisoned, then the likes of Malema should receive similar, if not far harsher, treatment.
Those desperately trying to avoid a discussion on the all-too-blatant hypocrisy at play in these sorts of convictions, as well as the starkly disparate media attention they receive, will insist that Momberg broke the law, in particular violating the highly problematic provisions in the Constitution that forbids demeaning people based on race, ethnicity, gender, or religion. Yet no law should automatically be perceived as noble, rational, or furthering the cause of justice simply because it exists. This could be likened to believing that adding two wrongs together makes a right.
Author: Ryan Rutherford has an honours degree in English literature, worked for almost six years as a teacher in South Korea, recently completed a Master of International Relations degree at the University of Cape Town, and is an increasingly-impassioned defender of individual liberty and Enlightenment values as opposed to irrational identitarianism of all stripes.