This week, “compound” joined refugee as an apparently innocuous word that has become the centre of a debate around racism. The circumstances under which they were used are quite different, but both presented our national spin doctors with gift-wrapped opportunities to distract the public and their supporters from real issues of delivery and corruption.

In the case of refugee, Helen Zille caused a storm when she used the word in a tweet to refer to Eastern Cape immigrants who had moved to the Western Cape for better standards of education. I criticised her at the time for giving her detractors such a useful opportunity to sideline the points that the issue was raising. By refusing to back down, she made it easier for her political opponents to position her as racist. (Subsequently she admitted: “I shot us in the foot with that tweet.”)

This time, she’s managed to do it again, by choosing to describe what some wit has described as KwaZulu-Natal’s Disney Land, not as an estate, a manor, a homestead or even property, but as a … compound.

Now, neither compound nor refugee are words with inherently racial connotations. The Merriam-Webster definition of compound is “a fenced or walled-in area containing a group of buildings and especially residences”. The Kennedys have a compound. So does the US president. Expats in Saudi Arabia live in compounds, and the word is typically used for military installations.

(Technically speaking, Dainfern is a compound, which means that Dan Roodt has something in common with Jacob Zuma.)

But context is everything, and anyone who has grown in South Africa will know that the word has been used, historically, to refer to accommodation for black workers, as this definition makes clear. The compound was as much a feature of the apartheid system as townships and passes. As a child, when I talked about “the compound”, it was where the blacks lived on the farm, and I’ll admit to being astonished when I first heard it bandied about in the context of Nkandla. How could anyone be so wilfully obtuse?

What’s not surprising is that Mac Maharaj should seize on this and use it to deflect attention from the real issue. What is surprising is that the DA should have chosen to use this particular word, especially given the way the refugee debacle played out. Yet again, they handed the race card to their detractors on a platter, complete with a sprig of parsley and a decorative pattern of balsamic glaze.

Racism is the rhetorical gift that keeps on giving. The more those in power are able to position legitimate criticism as racist — and this has been the case for years — the more it is able to reassure a supporter base for whom racism is a real, painful and frightening issue that it genuinely has their interests at heart – even when confronted with the Nkandlas of this world.

“To see racial prejudice behind every white South African’s criticism of Zuma is nothing short of silly and cynical,” The Times argued in an editorial. “But, because Maharaj cannot possibly defend the Nkandla compound, he resorts to the oldest black trick in the book.”

Most of us can smell the red herring. But damage has inevitably been done. Yet again, the DA has taken a neutral concept and cleverly fashioned it into a weapon to be used against them by their opponents. Yet again they’ve managed to take an opportunity to grab the high ground on an issue that should matter to every South African regardless of political affiliation and make a hash of it.

Words have power. They are weapons. We should all choose them more carefully.


Sarah Britten

Sarah Britten

During the day Sarah Britten is a communication strategist; by night she writes books and blog entries. And sometimes paints. With lipstick. It helps to have insomnia.

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