Winnie and Vicki before the law

William Saunderson-Meyer on the contrasting judicial experiences of Madikizela-Mandela and Momberg


Winnie and Vicki: Sides to the same coin of a populist judiciary

Ah! The blighted fortunes of the delightful Ms Vicki Momberg. She’s starting her second week in tjoekie and her plight is dismal.

She still doesn’t know whether she’ll be granted leave to appeal her three-year jail sentence for crimen injuria, of which a year was suspended. Her lawyer was ill, so the hearing was postponed another week.

Bail, normally a formality when the offender is not a flight risk – I mean, who would give succour to a fugitive, unrepentant uber-racist with a potty mouth? Australia? – remains denied to her. As a result, even if she eventually succeeds in escaping a custodial sentence, she’ll have experienced at least some of the chill of incarceration.

This surely a good thing? A cold stone cell will almost certainly take the edge of her bigotry. Justice, however, should not be about popularity or scapegoating.

That Momberg is a deeply unpleasant person, reviled the length and breadth of the land, should not add a single day to her sentence. Nor, of course, should the adulation of the strident masses subtract a single day of anyone’s sentence.

Justice, after all, is blind. Justice is even handed. Or so we are told.

The death this week of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is a stark reminder of the vagaries of the South African criminal justice system. The two women, despite diametrically opposed ideologies, are sides to the same coin – both examples of the debased currency of a populist judiciary, alert and responsive to political pressures.

Madikizela-Mandela is currently the focus of fawning hagiographies that gloss over her dark side, her violent and abusive nature. Winnie, who as a young woman had shown extraordinary courage against a violent regime, was as “mother of the nation” in 1989 accused of the kidnapping of four youths, and the murder of one, the 14-year-old Stompie Seipei.

In 1991, she was found guilty of kidnapping and being an accessory to assault, and sentenced to six-years jail. On appeal, this was reduced to a fine and a suspended two-year sentence.

So Madikizela-Mandela’s out-of-pocket penalty for the seizure and physical abuse of a child was all of R10,000. Contrast this with Momberg’s penalty for the verbal abuse of a police officer – a group of people who, dealing as they do with the dregs of society, are accustomed to daily belittlement and slurs.

Her hearing, in the risibly named Equality Court, ended with a fine nominally ten times higher than Madikizela-Mandela’s, a whopping R100,000 for an unemployed and unemployable estate agent. And then, second round, the three-year jail sentence.

For Madikizela-Mandela, being a Struggle icon and the wife of Nelson Mandela came, literally, with a Get Out of Jail Free card. At no stage – not after being charged, not while awaiting sentencing, not while awaiting the appeal – did Madikizela-Mandela spend a single night in jail.

Madikizela-Mandela’s bail, while on appeal, was all of R150. Of course, Momberg has such a dangerous tongue that she cannot get bail of any quantum. The devil incarnate, she might lash someone to death with the K-word.

In 1992 Madikizela-Mandela was accused of engineering the murder of Dr Abu-Baker Asvat, a former family friend who had treated Seipei at her house, where he was initially held after being kidnapped. She was never charged.

However, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1997 probed her role in the murder, but was forced to abandon its hearings amid claims that witnesses were being intimidated on her orders. In its final report, the TRC declared Madikizela-Mandela “politically and morally accountable for gross violations of human rights”.

Not everything went smoothly for Madikizela-Mandela. At one stage, she was so hated by the residents of Soweto for her reign of terror, that they gathered outside her home and set it on fire. The United Democratic Front, the internal stalking horse of the then still exiled and banned African National Congress, “disowned” her for gross violations of human rights.

Fortunately for Madikizela-Mandela, her rapid elevation over the past few days from the status of kidnapper, child abuser and crook – she was sentenced to five years jail for defrauding funeral fund of R1m, reduced to a suspended three-and-a-half years on appeal –  to secular sainthood, is an orgasmically populist process that has nothing to do with reason. So, Saint Winnie it is.

One can argue, as her acolytes would, that Madikizela-Mandela did not benefit from judicial favouritism because of political pressure. That her treatment on all these offences was judicially sound and that the matters of bail, appeal and sentence were dealt with in a procedural correctly and fair manner. 

If that were so, then kudos to the judges and prosecutors involved. But is not something that the acolytes want to look at too closely, since it would contradict the essence of stereotyping and scapegoating.

Embarrassingly, given the simplistic narratives that have come to dominate our racially fraught political discourse, all the major judicial players who treated Winnie so scrupulously, were members of that widely despised group, that of the white male. And many of them of the even more despised Afrikaner sub-species, nogal.

Two women. Both deeply flawed. But in terms of how they were treated judicially, which one do the courts say you should be more wary of?

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye