A day before brand ambassador, TV reality star and popular comedian Mongezi Ngcobondwane, aka TolA$$Mo, and his wife, designer Mome Mahlangu, were due to appear in court to face charges including attempted murder and assault, the couple publicly apologised to the man they originally claimed had racially insulted them. By MARIANNE THAMM.
For James French, the apology from Ngcobondwane and Mahlangu and which took place symbolically at the premises of the South African Human Rights Commission yesterday afternoon, was the best possible outcome of an ordeal he hopes will spark wider discussion in South Africa around issues of racism, xenophobia and sexism.
On July 10, Ngcobondwane and Mahlangu became embroiled in an argument at an ATM in Melville with French, an independent director of a multinational micro-finance bank that encourages investment in Africa and his companion, Alice Choe, a graduate of Wellesley College in Boston and who was conducting research in South Africa.
In a statement handed to French yesterday, Ngcobondwane admitted that Mahlangu had assaulted French that night, that he [Ncogondwane] had fired a weapon “without justification” and that French had never used “the k-word” as he had claimed.
“Mr French neither provoked nor returned the violence. We are immensely thankful that there were no physical injuries as a result of this, but we know that there were emotional ones. We will forever be sorry for these indefensible actions,” Ngcobondwane said.
After his arrest in July, Ngcobondwane had told a tabloid newspaper that he had been withdrawing money from the ATM when a man had “lost his temper” and had racially abused him.
“If another white man calls me the k-word, I’m going to moer him. I’ve just realised that I should have laid a charge with the Human Rights Commission,” the comedian told the Daily Sun.
French had initially said he would have been happy to withdraw the charges if the couple apologised publicly and much behind-the-scenes engagement between the parties resulted in the breakthrough this week.
Yesterday the couple offered French and Choe an unequivocal apology.
“We are writing to take responsibility for our actions and to offer our humblest apologies to those that we hurt. Recent media reports have referred to an incident that occurred on July 10, 2014 between us and James French and Alice Choe, both Americans visiting South Africa. That incident involved violent and abusive behaviour directed by us towards them. We wish that we could take back everything that evening, but we cannot. What that leaves us, however, is the opportunity to apply all the important lessons that we have learned since. In that spirit, we wish to take the opportunity afforded to us by a mutual desire by all parties to achieve true reconciliation and forgiveness through mediation, and to learn and grow from this experience.”
The couple conceded that neither French nor Choe had used “the k-word” and even if they had “we understand that this could never be used as a justification for the violence that ensued. However, this word was not used, and we regret the pain inflicted on Mr French and Ms Choe (and on the multitudes who have been truly victimised by acts of racism) that was caused by this allegation.”
They admitted that no abusive or disrespectful language had been directed at them and that in fact they had insulted French and Choe.
“Ms Choe is a Korean-American and Mome used language that inflicted pain on her, and looking back, can only be described as xenophobic. We are truly sorry,” said Ngcobondwane.
French, a black American and one of eight children born to celebrated American civil rights activists, Dr David M French and Carolyn Howard French, said that taking responsibility for their actions and offering a heartfelt apology “marks the beginning of an important journey towards true reconciliation and forgiveness. It is with this goal in mind that Alice Choe and I accept Mo and Mome’s apology.”
He added that the apology “restores my belief in the human spirit. We have now begun a much needed dialogue with them, one which looked impossible only a few days ago, that we hope to continue and expand in the coming days”.
Ngcobondwane said that the incident had been “a wake up call for us personally” and that he would explore the “personal causes of our behaviour that night”.
“But the first step on that long journey is to say to those that we hurt, James and Alice, and to any others whom we have let down: we are deeply sorry. Violence and xenophobia are an epidemic that plagues our society, threatening the hard-won gains of our democracy… We want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. We look forward to participating in a much needed public dialogue, and to working alongside civil society organizations in the coming days, weeks and months, to make this a reality.”
French said as a “politically-conscious African-American” he had learned of the central role that reconciliation played in liberation in the US as well as South Africa.
“A free people must find common ground, which is possible only when they let go of their prejudices; those biased certainties may afford us comfort, but they are counterproductive to our freedom. I have also learned that liberation is a profoundly personal experience. It begins with asking if one’s assumptions, many of which are inherited, stand up to scrutiny and serve one well.”
Racism, xenophobia, and sexism, he added, were the result of unexamined assumptions about what and who the “other” is, about gender roles, and about what constitutes integrity.
“Alice and I forgive and commend them as they begin a new journey of growth and wisdom. We wish them well.” DM
Photo: Mongezi Ngcobondwane, aka TolA$$Mo, and his wife, designer Mome Mahlangu.