We assumed inherent racism would disappear

It is easy for anti-racists and non-racists to rejoice after the sentencing of former estate agent Vicki Momberg to an effective two-year prison sentence for racism, after she used the K-word repeatedly - 48 times - in her interaction with police officers and call centre agents after an alleged smash-and- grab incident outside Joburg in 2016.

Momberg had to pay for her crime - because racism is a crime and should be punished - and magistrate Pravina Rugoonandan needs to be commended for her ruling which will ensure that, for the first time in South Africa, someone will be jailed for uttering racist terms towards someone who might not look or sound like her.

Momberg is appealing the sentence but has already spent time in jail because her bail was revoked after sentencing.

It is a good moment for our democracy and will hopefully ensure racists - black or white - will think twice before using derogatory terms about others.

However, why do conditions still exist in our country that make it possible for racists to think they can easily get away with perpetuating racism, whether this be blatant or subtle.  

Surely, almost 24 years since we voted for the first time in democratic South Africa on April 27, 1994, we should have moved on to deal with racism in a more concerted manner?

And surely, when we embraced each other as part of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s favourite concept of a “rainbow nation”, we should have made a commitment to treat each other with dignity and respect, as the magistrate pointed out in her ruling this week.

The reality is that South Africa has not really dealt with the racism at the root of 300 years of colonialism and 50 years of apartheid. We believed that we could easily move on from a situation of severe repression and oppression to one in which we would all embrace each other unconditionally.

Behind any acts of racism is a belief of superiority, based on perceived differences. This is why it is more likely to find white racists than black racists, but this does not mean black racists do not exist.

As whites are likely to have privilege, not only in South Africa but also in most parts of the world, it stands to reason racism would emanate mainly from whites.

When we became a democracy, many South Africans tried to put the past behind us without interrogating the reasons we had that past.

We never looked at the factors that allowed white supremacists to rule our country so long, despite them being a minority.

We never looked at how we could repair the damage done by centuries of colonialism and decades of apartheid.

We never looked at how we could prevent a similar situation from occurring in future.

We assumed because legalised racism was something of the past, inherent racism would also be.

But the many incidents of racism prevalent in our society - and the Momberg one is but the tip of the iceberg - show we cannot relax and pretend everything is okay in ubuntu South Africa.

The first step towards dealing with racism is to admit it is a problem. Yes, we can legislate and even imprison a few people, but that will never be enough to deal with the problem at a much greater level.

We have legislation against so many things, but that does not seem to have much impact in a society where many people seem to take risks and get away with criminal activity, because they don’t get caught and, if they do get caught, they do not get convicted.

The Momberg incident would probably also not have had this conclusion if the whole incident was not video-recorded and shared on social media.

Momberg would probably just have put this down to a stressful experience and moved on with her life. She would probably have thought nothing about using the K-word again afterwards.

Racism is often based on ignorance - because those who perpetuate racism do not know enough about people who they perceive to be different to them - and the best way to deal with ignorance is through education.

We need to have continuous conversations throughout our country where we look at our apartheid and colonial history and the damage it has done. We need to, together, find ways of making sure we are able to move forward properly.

But we also need to look at how we can change behaviour permanently. Momberg might serve her time, but will she come out a better person on the other end? Or will she continue to harbour racist thoughts? The only difference then is that she does not verbalise those thoughts and that could be even more dangerous to society, especially if there are thousands, if not millions, of others who feel the same.

While we rejoice at the imprisonment of a racist, we need to realise this is only the start. There are many more like her and they might not be deterred by a possible prison sentence.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 31 March 2018)