Blurred lines and Tol A$$ Mo
Debate about racism and xenophobia in this country is often reactive. Something terrible happens, someone accuses someone, we shout, we get angry, sometimes we tweet about it but then we return to the status quo. But the rules of engagement around race, racism, xenophobia and hate crimes might soon change should a criminal case go to trial, involving one of this country's most popular Jo'burg celebrity couples, Vuzu TV stars comedian Tol A$$ Mo and his designer wife Mome.
Here's what we know:
Last week one of the country's most popular comedians and television stars, Tol A$$ Mo, or Mongezi Ngcobondwane, appeared briefly in the Newlands Magistrate's court in Sophiatown facing four criminal charges including attempted murder, assault, intimidation and malicious damage to property.
Ngcobondwane and his wife Mome, a fashion designer, are the stars of a reality TV show MoLove - Making it Work on Vuzu, a Dstv youth entertainment channel. The show chronicles the tempestuous lives of the couple as they bicker their way through various personal and professional dramas. Apart from this, Tol A$$ Mo is, according to Owen S Management, a brand ambassador for Nike as well as other "high profile" brands such as Smirnoff, Mini Cooper and Converse. He is also a sought-after stand-up comedian. The celebrity couple are frequently filmed and photographed at their home in Melville.
On July 10, a Thursday night, around 10.30pm, Ngcobondwane and Mome became embroiled in an alleged altercation with two people who had stopped to withdraw money from an ATM on the corner of 7th Avenue and 3rd Street in Melville. A weapon was allegedly discharged. A week later Brixton police arrested Ngcobondwane on the four charges.
On July 29, the day of his first court appearance on the charges Toll A$$ Mo @Papa Khumo tweeted: "I voted ANC, today I want my vote to work for me off to court to defend myself for being called the k-word".
Afterwards Ngcobondwane told a Daily Sun reporter that all charges against him had been dropped "after he told his side of the story". The comedian also suggested to the tabloid that his arrest had been "unfair", that he had been a "victim" and that he had been called "the k-word" by a "white man" who had apparently lost his temper at the ATM.
"If another white man calls me the k-word, I'm going to moer him," Ngcobondwane warned in the tabloid.
Either Ngcobondwane was lying, or he was mistaken, or the reporter was unforgivably sloppy, because on 28 August the comedy star was back in court to face the same four charges. The case has been postponed to 19 September and his bail of R1,000 was extended. Police have subsequently confirmed that on Friday last week, Mome was arrested on charges of crimen injuria and assault relating to the same incident. She was released and warned to appear in court along with her husband on 19 September.
James Albert French is an independent director of a multinational micro-finance bank that encourages investment in Africa. French, one of eight children born to illustrious and celebrated American civil rights activists, Dr David M French and Carolyn Howard French, has lived on and off in South Africa since 2010.
His family is descended from Africans enslaved in Orange County, Virginia, and his grandparents and parents devoted their lives to the civil rights struggle in the United States. French's sister, Lynn, was a member of the Black Panther Party in Chicago in the 1960s and his brother Howard is an author of leading books on Africa.
French's father, a paediatric thoracic surgeon who was the national chairman for the Medical Committee for Human Rights and who worked directly with Rev Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, later moved his family to West Africa to pioneer public health programmes. And it was in Africa that the young James Albert French spent his formative years. Dr French and his wife raised all of their children as proud black Americans and each of the siblings has made a contribution to public life in the US and elsewhere.
On the night of the alleged attack on 10 July, French had gone to a sushi restaurant in Melville accompanied by Alice Choe, a graduate of Wellesley College in Boston and the recipient of the 2013/14 prestigious Thomas J Watson Fellowship. As part of the project Choe visited five countries, Jordan, Ethiopia, Uganda, UAE, and India researching domestic violence. She was in South Africa conducting research locally. Choe is a Korean-American, born and raised in Chicago.
Because the charges have not yet been put to Ngcobondwane or his wife, and because they have not yet pleaded, details of the incident as set out in witness statements are currently sub judice and cannot be reported on.
But what IS out there is the comedian's statement to the Daily Sun after his first appearance that the man he had encountered at the ATM had used a highly offensive and demeaning racial slur and that this somehow justified the ensuing violence.
That man was James Albert French and unsurprisingly, considering his and his family's long history in the civil rights movement, he is outraged that Ngcobondwane has claimed he used "the k-word".
French told the Daily Maverick "as an American and a proud black American, the "k-word" is not part of my vocabulary.
"As a black man, the thought that I would use a racial epithet against another black person is absurd and unworthy of serious comment," French added.
The incident, he continued, was "an unprovoked, violent racial and xenophobic attack on me and my companion, an Asian-American... Mome Ngcobondwane is also facing charges in relation to the same attack. After firing a weapon at me, my attacker has now tried to assassinate my character in the media through slander, in a desperate attempt to defend his indefensible actions. Whatever my appearance may suggest to you, I was raised proudly as a black American."
Most importantly, French has pointed out that "beyond myself and my companion that night, the other victims of this crime are the many true victims of racism and xenophobia, both here in South Africa and elsewhere. My attacker has dishonoured them all by claiming racism - effectively crying wolf when there are legitimate incidents of racism that occur on a daily basis."
Ngcobondwane and his wife are no strangers to controversy. Last year, the Daily Sun reported that an events organiser, Gain Masedi, had claimed that Mome had slapped and insulted him at a local Melville steakhouse. This after the couple had become embroiled in an earlier altercation with another events organiser at Snake Park in Vereenigning, when the comedian had cancelled a gig and had demanded his full fee.
"They then followed me as I left and confronted me about last year's event when Mome slapped me. They then started calling me names and threatened to kill me. They also said that they would run amok at my upcoming event on Saturday," Masedi told the Daily Sun.
Masedi opened a case of assault against the couple at the Brixton Police Station, but nothing seems to have come of it. Later, when the Daily Sun contacted Mome for her comment on the incident, she tweeted: "I just bitch-slapped a fake promoter from the Vaal, now you can run to Daily Sun and tell them the real truth or I'll moer u sies!!"
Embedded within what happened at that ATM in Melville on the night of July 2014 are complex layers of history, identity, race, racism, xenophobia and notions of celebrity in post-democratic South Africa. Should the case come to trial, it will facilitate much-needed discussion on all of these matters.
The American civil rights movement has contributed to the global notion of "blackness" and it is nuanced public debate about this universality of what it means to be black that is sorely lacking in post-apartheid South Africa.
The construct of race as configured by those who dreamed it up continues to haunt democratic South Africa with contested notions of who is black enough to be called a black African and who is defined as "coloured" or "Indian". Discussion in this country increasingly pivots on chauvinist or narrow nationalist definitions of what it means to be a "black African".
In an essay titled "American Blackness Is Global Blackness" for the website The Root in February this year, the Khartoum-born author Rawiya Kameir writes of her early life in the Sudan: "Practically everyone around me was African, but the construct of blackness as a racial category is a distinctly American one, traceable to the legacy of slavery and to the foisting onto millions of Africans a definition conveniently derived from a constructed oppositeness vis-à-vis whiteness."
She notes that in the US, "'black' eventually came to be a signifier of cultural and ethnic heritage, and of people identifiable by colour. Elsewhere, nation, tribe, religion, language and any number of other unifying characteristics take precedence over 'black' as cultural in-group definers. In America, you're black first; in Africa, Latin America or the Middle East, though, race comes with an opt-in clause."
For James French there are no optional "opt-in" clauses. His identity as a black American was forged by the history of his family and the struggles of black Americans and Africans on the continent he has known since childhood. It would be shameful if a young South African known for his "freestyle" comedy should, through assumption, ignorance and arrogance, be allowed to excuse violent behaviour, in addition to pulling the race card on a brother, instead of taking responsibility for his actions. The Daily Maverick had sent several SMSes to Mongezi Ngcobondwane's lawyer, Lindiwe Mkhize, with no response or reply. We also contacted Ngcobondwane offering a right to reply, with no response.
The Daily Maverick had sent several SMSes to Mongezi Ngcobondwane's lawyer, Lindiwe Mkhize, with no response or reply. We also contacted Ngcobondwane offering a right to reply, with no response.
This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.