Editorial: Compounding the problem

Presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj. (M&G)

Presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj. (M&G)

South African political language can be baffling, but the most recent utterances on "Nkandlagate" surely mark a new level of tortuous sophistry.

This is often the case when the argument about an issue becomes an argument about the words you can use or not use in the argument.

On radio this week, presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj denounced the word "compound" being used to refer to Jacob Zuma's homestead in Nkandla: it was racist because it was resonant of apartheid (when it referred to mining hostels, among other things). And, as if telepathically responsive, the SABC told its reporters not to use "Zumaville" to name the town speedily being developed a few kilometres from the president's, er, settlement.

The Mail & Guardian proudly takes responsibility for the coinage "Zumaville", so we're a bit sorry to see it deleted from the official airwaves. Someone had to find a short name for the Umlazi-Nkandla Smart Growth Development Centre. The SABC wasn't helping.

Maharaj isn't helping, either, by damning as racist a word that has been used innumerable times, in the media and in the government's own ­statements, to describe the place Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille was barred from inspecting last weekend. Zille and a small handful of DA ­members were accused of trying to "invade" the president's personal home, and although none of us would stand for such an "invasion" of our own homes, or even our compounds, it is the fact that this is the president's personal home that is the issue – it is costing a great deal in public funds.

Whether or not it is racist to say "compound" is something we'll let Maharaj lose sleep over. (The word comes from the Malay kampong, an enclosure or village, and was often used for fenced European settlements, so perhaps Mac means that it's anti-Asian to use it?)

We can find other words to describe the place – "homestead" and ­"settlement" we've used already; some ­commentators suggest "palace" or "fortress", but those are probably too loaded. Perhaps "kraal" would be the most authentically African word for it. Our president, after all, is a great upholder of tradition. But we can already hear Maharaj saying kraals are for animals, not people.

If only he would give his personal home complex a resounding personal name, one the media would be able to use freely without fear of giving offence. We hesitate to make suggestions, but perhaps "Umgungundlovu" would do?

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