Court Decision Shines Light on Race Relations in South Africa

People protesting two white farmers who threatened to kill a black South African in South Africa, October 23, 2017. Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

Tense race relations on the rise

The New York Times reported that for the first time, a white woman was convicted, sentenced, and jailed for the use of racial slurs. The woman’s rant, which occurred in February 2016, lasted some minutes and was directed at black and white police officers who responded after her car had been burglarized. The episode was captured on video and went viral on social media, producing outrage in the majority black country. The court sentenced the woman, Vicki Momberg, to three years in jail with one suspended for her words. The judge refused to grant her bail while she appeals, observing that she had shown no remorse.

The rant included the woman’s use of “kaffir” some forty times. The word is all but unknown in the United States, but its origin, apparently, is Arabic and refers to “unbelievers.” In South Africa, the word is a slur against black people and is regarded as even more demeaning than the “n-word” in the United States. In the media, the word is rarely written or said out-loud, but instead referred to as the “k-word.” Like the “n-word,” kaffir is redolent of white supremacy and apartheid. With its use, the woman was being as personally insulting as possible in South Africa. So much so that a white policeman who joined the episode, while trying to calm her, is reported to have said, “I am not going to allow you to insult my colleagues like that.”

There has been backlash among white South Africans. Some have argued that she was upset after having just been robbed (this was part of her defense in court as well), while others have complained that black insults and threats to whites—especially by political figures—have gone unpunished. The episode shines a light on an enduring South African reality of race relations: the persistence of racism, especially among some whites. I have written previously about an episode in 2016 in which a white woman in seaside Durban characterized black beach goers as “monkeys,” though she later apologized. The recent court decision illustrates once again the complexities of managing racial issues in a democratic country with a predominately black population and black government but in which most of the wealth and privilege is in white hands.

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