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25/04/2018 10:47 SAST | Updated 25/04/2018 10:47 SAST

5 Handy Tips For Vicki Momberg And Company

Momberg has become the poster child for unrepentant bigoted behaviour that seems to beset our society almost 25 years after the end of apartheid.

Convicted racist Vicki Momberg.
Gulshan Khan/ AFP/ Getty Images
Convicted racist Vicki Momberg.

OPINION

Like a bad case of cold sores that erupts whenever we try to forget about it, Vicki Momberg enters our nation's consciousness whenever she appears in court.

Last week we were again reminded of the ugly side of our society, when she lost her application for leave to appeal her two-year sentence for crimen injuria. In dismissing the application, the sitting magistrate viewed the sentence that she handed down more than a month ago as "fair‚ just and appropriate", without any prospect of another court finding differently in respect of sentence.

Momberg has become the poster child for unrepentant bigoted behaviour that seems to beset our society almost 25 years after the end of apartheid. It is unclear whether it is simply ignorance or downright hatred of those different to themselves that motivates such repugnant references to fellow South Africans, but one thing is clear: instead of the use of demeaning words receding into the past, their use remains rampant today.

When one is blessed to be surrounded by respectful people who are acutely aware of the impact of offensive references, one tends to think that people like Vicki Momberg and those like her do not exist anymore. Yet they do exist — and instead of showing their true colours only to those of the same ilk (South Africa's Constitution, after all, guarantees freedom of association), their apartheid-era references to fellow citizens still crawl out like lice from under a well-coiffed hairdo at the most inopportune times.

On Easter Sunday I nearly choked on an Easter egg, when I read that two department of justice employees had referred to a colleague as a monkey. The fallacy that personal communication is private on social media has often led to the revelation of the jaw-dropping views held by many South Africans.

As it is unclear whether Momberg and her ilk use derogatory terms for people out of ignorance and stupidity, or just downright hatred, I thought that I'd write down five handy tips that South Africans who are less aware of social etiquette should try to remember in the interests of social cohesion.

In any civilised society, it is decency and respect for oneself and others that is transmitted from one generation to the next.

Tip 1: Think before you speak

I could swear that growing up, not a day passed without someone in my family repeating one of my mother's favourite sayings: to think before one speaks. Today it is still relevant and with technology, we can extend it to "think before you click".

So often we simply run our mouths in anger and frustration, saying exactly what comes to mind — but for most of us, there is a threshold that we tend not to cross, especially when it comes to name-calling or demeaning others.

The technology creating the keyboard and screen that has replaced much of our face-to-face communication, and not having to look someone in the eye lends itself to horrendous name-calling and terrible insults.

Of course, there are a few people like Momberg (or disgraced judge Nkola Motata) who rant and insult, completely oblivious to time and place with no appreciation of what is acceptable to say and what is not. So people like them should internalise the "think before you speak" adage and realise that if they have nothing nice or good to say, then they should say exactly that: nothing.

Gallo Images
Judge Nkola Motata at the Johannesburg High Court on November 29, 2010 where he was denied leave to appeal his conviction for drunken driving.

Tip 2: Remember that regardless of age, what you say and how you treat others reflects your upbringing

We all know that human beings do not crawl out from under a rock and left to their own devices the minute they breathe fresh air. People are born as helpless babies who depend on (hopefully) caring and loving individuals to teach them things that are necessary to survive and interact successfully with others. Those who rear children (whether blood relatives or otherwise) are not always perfect, but in any civilised society, it is decency and respect for oneself and others that is transmitted from one generation to the next.

Good social interaction is not advanced through name-calling or by referring to people as animals. Even if those responsible for our upbringing were guilty of doing just that, it is only the obtuse and uninitiated who will go through life perpetuating learnt behaviour by denigrating others and remaining oblivious to current socially acceptable norms.

Calling any person of colour a monkey or any other primate, the K-word or the H-word in South Africa is disparaging and really offensive – and no matter what one's own feelings are about it, simply never do it, for it is a sacrilege against human dignity.

Tip 3: Remember that just because you are not offended by something, does not mean that somebody else isn't

So maybe your grandfather called you "skapie" or your great-uncle called you his "apie"; or maybe when growing up, you were lovingly called by your family the diminutive of the k-word — and thus you see nothing wrong with calling others that. However, offending people is not about what you think is offensive, but what those you refer to experience as offensive. Which brings us to the next issue that is crucial.

Tip 4: Context is king

We must remain cognisant of the lived experiences of people of colour, who were degraded and humiliated under apartheid by myriad laws — from racial classification legislation, to pass laws and the Group Areas Act. The context in which all South Africans who are not white found ourselves previously influences the way we react to certain words today.

The K-word, the H-word and any reference to all things primate unearths the trauma that was inflicted at a time when being chased away like a dog — for no other reason than for being at a place with a "Whites only" sign — by somebody with less melanin or by a sjambok-wielding police officer in a polyester uniform, were the everyday experiences of the majority of South Africans.

Calling any person of colour a monkey or any other primate, the K-word or the H-word in South Africa is disparaging and really offensive — and no matter what one's own feelings are about it, simply never do it, for it is a sacrilege against human dignity.

Tip 5: Dump Facebook, go out and get to know people who look different from you

Facebook's Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which millions of social media users had their personal data shared for political and financial gain, has made Facebook the whipping boy of the month. But it is not this scandal that makes Facebook so insidious, in my opinion, but the filters it has used for years that allow its users to see only topics that interest them. Newsfeeds are based on users' "likes" or the pages that they visit.

Facebook has recently overhauled this practice, to focus more on what friends and family share and less on news publications or brands. However, the ability of the social media platform to let its users interact with only like-minded people continues to exist, with the result that Facebook becomes a giant echo chamber, allowing users to engage only with what they like or what interests them.

If someone "friends" David Duke on Facebook, the chances are therefore pretty high that many of the newsfeeds they receive might be white-supremacist information. With nothing more comforting than the knowledge that one is not alone in one's beliefs about others, those beliefs become exponentially amplified and the "us-versus-them" rhetoric, as well as the use of offensive words, normalised.

People like Vicki Momberg and her supporters create the belief that all white South Africans speak like them, and it is this belief that makes Julius Malema and his supporters feel justified in using demeaning and insulting rhetoric towards white people. This is simply wrong, and we must all do better.

The most effective antidote to bigotry and prejudice has always been getting to know and understand the people about whom bigoted ideas are held. Thus engaging, listening and learning, without patronising people who look different, will lead to more understanding and greater empathy.

It took going to jail for Vicki Momberg to engage with people of colour, if the cornrows she appeared with in court are anything to go by. Donning cornrows (leaving aside the issue of cultural appropriation) means that Momberg probably got to know a person of colour and let that person come close enough to braid her hair, suggesting that going to jail might still be a "road to Damascus*" experience for Momberg.

AFP/Getty Images
Convicted racist Vicki Momberg is pictured at the Randburg Magistrate Court to appeal the four charges of crimen injuria - defined as 'a wilful injury to someone's dignity caused by the use of obscene or racially offensive language or gestures' and sentence of two years in jail on April 11, 2018. (Photo credit: GULSHAN KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)

People like Vicki Momberg and her supporters create the belief that all white South Africans speak like them, and it is this belief that makes Julius Malema and his supporters feel justified in using demeaning and insulting rhetoric towards white people. This is simply wrong, and we must all do better.

*According to the Bible, the conversion of St Paul from persecutor of Christians to the foremost apostle of the faith occurred on the road to Damascus, when a blinding light threw him from his horse and the Lord spoke to him.