A South African court has issued the first ever prison sentence for uttering a racist insult, laying bare the sharp racial divide that still scars the country’s social landscape nearly a quarter of a century since the end of apartheid.
A Johannesburg court found estate agent Vicki Momberg guilty of crimen injuria, or the willful injury to a person’s dignity after she was videotaped in 2016 yelling racist abuse at a black policeman.
At the time, Ms Momberg had been the victim of theft and vented her frustration on the unsuspecting officer who attempted to assist her.
In the video Ms Momberg is seen using apartheid-era racial slurs like “kaffir”, deemed one of the worst terms of hate speech in South Africa. The video went viral and Ms Momberg was arrested and put on trial. She was sentenced on Wednesday to an effective two years in prison.
“Welcome to a new South Africa, where Racists are jailed!,” musician and local celebrity Jay Monokoane tweeted on Wednesday. “The sooner we jail them, the better!”
Ms Momberg’s incarceration comes as lawmakers are reviewing a proposed hate speech bill, which would criminalise prejudice involving race, gender, HIV status, and nationality among others.
As things stand now, the country’s constitution provides broad guarantees for free speech. However a number of high-profile racist incidents, usually fueled by social media dissemination have led to demands for stronger reactions from the authorities.
The Johannesburg based Institute for Race Relations (IRR) spokesman Michael Morris says more legal actions are likely to follow.
“As far as we can determine, this is the harshest sentence a court has handed down for such behaviour and whatever people feel about it, it sends a clear message,” he said.
Although racist incidents tend to garner a lot of media attention, IRR data suggests that in reality people of different races coexist peacefully in South Africa.
According to the IRR’s research 77 per cent of black respondents said they had never personally experienced racism. Ninety-two per cent of all South Africans, and 90 per cent of black respondents, agreed that “different races need each other for progress and there should be full opportunity for people of all races,” Mr Morris said.
But South Africa’s charged political atmosphere is likely to give way to more prosecutions. “South Africa might witness several such cases before the courts and an increasing number of people, across the political spectrum, being jailed.”
Census figures show the country has 43 million black people, and 4.5 million white people. With elections a little more than a year away, race-baiting rhetoric and “identity politics” are set to increase, Mr Morris said.
For some, Ms Momberg’s conviction illustrates the inconsistent approach to racism. “The inconsistency being applied in this country regarding minorities has reached the level of absurdity,” said Ernst Roets, deputy CEO of Afriforum, an organisation most closely associated with white Afrikaner nationalism.
He referred to alarming incidents such as opposition politician Julius Malema making statements such as: “Indian people are worse than Afrikaners” and “we are not calling for the slaughtering of white people, at least for now.”
Afriforum has previously attempted to prosecute Mr Malema and others for such statements, with little result. More than 112 charges were laid in the past year alone, but none have yet gone to court.
However, with one successful prosecution in the bag legal authorities may now feel the pressure to show they will treat such cases equally, regardless of race. The prosecutor of Ms Momberg, Yusuf Baba hinted as much after the sentence was passed: “It is time a loud message is sent to every race‚ every person in the country.”