The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Landmark ruling’: A woman is sent to prison in South Africa for using racial epithet

Vicki Momberg became the first person in South Africa to be sentenced to jail for racist speech on March 28. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

The officers arrived to assist a South African woman whose car was just burglarized, but she didn’t want their help. Or at least she didn’t want the help of a black officer, whom she repeatedly insulted in a racist rant. In a video that went viral in 2016, she repeatedly called him the k-word, a South African equivalent of the n-word.

That racial epithet eventually led to the woman’s arrest and conviction on four counts of “crimen injuria,” which in South Africa is the statute barring verbal racial abuse directed at another person.

On Wednesday, a judge in South Africa sentenced Vicki Momberg to three years in prison, with one year suspended if she does not commit the same offense.

“This is a landmark case, and it’s a landmark ruling, and we believe that it sets a precedent for other racial-related cases,” Phindi Mjonondwana, a spokeswoman for South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority, told reporters after the trial.

In the 2016 incident, Momberg used the k-word 48 times in her tirade, BBC reported. The video, captured by apparent bystanders, begins with Momberg ranting on the phone to someone about her hatred for black people.

“The k‑‑‑‑‑s here in [Johannesburg] are terrible,” she said, in the presence of several officers. “I’m so sick of it. I really am.”

Soon, a white officer approached her, asking if he could please have a word with her, saying the officers were here to help but that she could not insult his colleagues that way.

“Listen here,” she said, “I’m not going to change my mind. I hate the f‑‑‑ing blacks.”

And later: “They’re opinionated, they’re arrogant, and they’re just plain and simple … useless.”

And: “I’m happy for a white person to assist me or a colored person or an Indian person. I do not want a black person to assist me.”

As she got in her car minutes later, the black officer went to her window, calmly assuring her that he was only trying to help. He also said, “I’m asking you, did you insult me at any time?”

Momberg only grew more irate, saying as she turned on her car, “If I see a k‑‑‑‑‑, I will run him over. If I have a gun, I will shoot everybody.”

In a statement, the Nelson Mandela Foundation said it welcomed her prison sentence.

“It delivers a clear message to South Africans that the kind of race-based abuse for which Ms. Momberg was found guilty will not be tolerated,” the statement said. “For too long post-apartheid South Africa has pursued what we would call strategies of generosity in relation to such manifestations of racism. It must stop.”

In the past, South Africans have been prosecuted for verbal racial abuse under the crimen injuria statute, but they were just fined.

Last month, a South African man was fined 100,000 rand, or about $8,460, for calling a black man the k-word during an argument. In 2016, a former real estate agent was fined about a total of more than $13,000 for repeatedly referring to black people as “monkeys” in a Facebook rant, accusing them of littering and being uneducated.

But in recent years, the South African government has been calling for far stricter penalties for racist and discriminatory behavior. Earlier this month, the country’s cabinet approved the Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill, allowing it to be sent to Parliament for a vote. That bill would make hate speech or hate crimes punishable up to three years in prison for first-time offenders and up to 10 years for subsequent offenses.

Michael Masutha, the minister of the country’s Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, said in a statement that Momberg’s case was a perfect example of why the bill was necessary in South Africa.

“We also find it defeating and disappointing that we are dealing with a case of this nature in a year where we celebrate the year of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela,” he said.

Mandela, who became the country’s first president in 1994 after serving 27 years in prison for his activism against apartheid, was born 100 years ago on July 18, 1918.

More from Morning Mix:

NHL stunner: A 36-year-old accountant who has never played pro stars in Blackhawks win

Facing boycott, Laura Ingraham apologizes for taunting Parkland teen over college rejections

‘A second-rate bean’: Houston’s new bean sculpture scorned in Chicago