Words we are not allowed to use: Who decides?

mOMBERG

Crude words carry a price: Using the k-word in South Africa today to refer to black people can lead to legal action. In the picture, Vicki Momberg at her trial for abusing black policemen who tried to help her

WHAT SHOULD we do about the k-word? Flight crew evicted a woman from a flight about to take off from Johannesburg to Durban two weeks ago, after she used the word in an sms to refer to the black captain and passengers, and another passenger noticed it and complained to the crew. The woman, Alochna Moodley from Midrand, admitted it was wrong, but protested that the other passenger, Reverend Solumuzi Mabuza, invaded her privacy by reading her sms. She reportedly lost her job at her company as a result. Mabuza later said that although he forgave her after she made a public apology, he still planned to open a charge of crimen injuria (wilful injury) against her.

This follows another case when Vicki Momberg a white, former real estate agent was sentenced to an effective two years in prison for a racist tirade in 2016. She was found guilty of crimen injuria, after she had lashed out at a black police officer who helped her after a smash-and-grab incident in Johannesburg. In a video clip that went viral, she complained about the “calibre of blacks” in Johannesburg. She used the k-word 48 times. In sentencing her, the magistrate said the policemen who assisted her were in their uniform ready to serve, and Momberg’s slurs stripped them of their dignity. There was widespread public support for her sentencing.

The controversial word goes way back in South African history, and was once common among sections of the white population to refer to black people. To South African ears, it is profoundly insulting, implying that the person referred to is inferior, uncultured and subject to the power of the word’s user. Colonialism and apartheid’s cruel spirit embodied in a word.

It appears in important literature, for example through the mouth of a clearly racist Oom Schalk Lourens, a complicated character in a racial country created by one of the country’s admired writers, Herman Charles Bosman. Lourens says: “I could never understand why (G-d) made the ‘k’… and the rinderpest”

The k-word has a close cousin in the United States in the insulting n-word, which has long evoked emotional reactions. In February, two books regarded as literary classics – the Pulitzer-prize winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, depicting racial injustice in Alabama, and Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain dealing with slavery in pre-Civil War America, which contains offensive language by racist characters – were removed from school syllabuses in Minnesota over fears their use of racial slurs would upset black students. Both books have been lauded over the years as anti-racist, although set in racially loaded contexts.

The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People supported the decision, saying the books use hurtful language “that has oppressed people over 200 years.” But free speech organisations criticised it, with the National Coalition Against Censorship saying rather than ignore difficult speech, educators should create spaces for dialogue to teach students to confront racism. It’s like banning Charles Dickens for portraying Fagin, the Jew.

The k-word and n-word have been red flags to a bull in South Africa and the United States. Now, in some quarters, including South Africa, a new word has been added: the z-word (Zionist), which has taken on almost as insulting a meaning when mouthed by virulently anti-Israel or anti-Semitic groups. How long will this list of no-nos become?

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies’ decision last week to lay criminal charges for hate speech against three men who posted violent Whatsapp messages against Zionists and Jews, saying the Holocaust will be a picnic compared to what they are going to do to them, will test free speech boundaries. Should those men be punished for hate speech, or are their utterances legitimate political discourse?

This country is early in the process of defining its red lines on speech. EFF leader Julius Malema, a firebrand political figure, uses militant racial statements against whites and Indians, such as accusations that “the majority of Indians are racists,” and barbs against other groups such as coloureds – should it be allowed? In many western countries, such utterances by a politician would end his political career. Crude words, when repeated often enough, tend to provoke violent actions by reckless people. Malema is a potential Mussolini-in-the-making, and dangerous.

The topic tends to become irrational. But confronting it is a necessary process in clarifying post-apartheid South Africa. Remember the reputed banning of the children’s novel Black Beauty during apartheid because censors didn’t want the words ‘black’ and ‘beauty’ on the same page? Some scholars refute this, but whatever the case, the last thing we need now is to go back to that crazy mindset.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za 

 

 

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