Racist: Much of government, many of its leaders

President Jacob Zuma's Nkandla compound. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

President Jacob Zuma's Nkandla compound. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

SABC radio station SAfm on Tuesday apologised for referring to President Jacob Zuma's Nkandla homestead as a "compound", after the presidency argued that is racist. Accepting that logic makes all three arms of government racist.

Referring to the Zuma homestead in rural KwaZulu-Natal as a compound shows that the Democratic Alliance is racist, presidency spokesperson Mac Maharaj said this week, because that word was used to denote single-sex living quarters for black people, especially mining hostels, under apartheid.

"She's called the president's house a 'compound', a word used for hostels and migrant workers," Maharaj told radio station 702 on Monday, speaking of DA leader Helen Zille, who he said used "language loaded with prejudice". "She'd never use that for a white person's home."

On Tuesday the SABC's national English-language radio station SAfm took that reprimand to heart, and apologised for having referred to the large collection of buildings contained within a single fence at the Zuma family residence in such terms.

But similar apologies have not yet been forthcoming from various government departments and individual ministers, including the presidency and the department of public works, which have engaged in casual racism by that measure.

If referring to a complex of buildings as a compound (one of the commonly-accepted dictionary definitions) is, indeed, racist, then the following instances of racism throughout the government have been well documented:

* In early October, amid growing coverage of spending at Nkandla, the department of public works issued a statement in which it refers to the "security compound" that forms part of the Nkandla complex—twice.
Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi read that statement aloud to a live television audience and a large collection of journalists.

* The department of rural development and land reform has several times referred to the homesteads of traditional leaders as compounds, and the department of foreign affairs at least once referred to the place of residence of Yasser Arafat as "the presidential compound".

* In usage not related to residences, the department of arts and culture has been known to refer to "library compounds" in official regulations, and both the departments of education and sport and recreation have referred to "school compounds" in documents and speeches.

* The presidency features on its website a photo of Zuma greeting Muammar Gadaffi, with a caption that implies the former Libyan leader lived in a compound.

* During his time in office, former president Thabo Mbeki at least once referred to the homesteads of African people as a "compound", albeit in the context of a quote from Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe. (It is not clear from the speech whether Mbeki himself was being racist, or whether he was trying to point out the racism of Achebe or the subject of his speech, Mahatma Gandhi.)

* In Parliament, in late October, Congress of the People MP Juli Kilian referred to "President Zuma's Nkandla compound" in a question, and that phrase was allowed to circulate on documents. Similarly, in April 2001, Planning Minister Trevor Manuel referred to "compound living areas, be these large golf estates or small, gated communities" when arguing before Parliament for a budget allocation for the national census.

* And in the judicial arm of government, references to the compounds in which people live in rural areas of South Africa are legion, even making an appearance in documents before the Constitutional Court.

A Mail & Guardian review could find no evidence that any of these departments, individuals or institutions had been disciplined, or even criticised, for their utterings.

The SABC did not immediately respond to questions on whether any of its other stations had ever referred to the Nkandla complex as a compound, and whether any more apologies would be forthcoming.

Asked on Tuesday whether it would issue an apology for its racism, the department of public works asked that the question be repeated three times before asking that it be put in writing.


Shortly after publication of this article, the SABC responded to questions on the SAFM apology with a one-line SMS. "This is an internal matter that we do not want to discuss externally," said spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago.

Disclosure: The M&G has used the word "compound" to refer to Zuma's homestead near Nkandla more than two dozen times since it started covering the issue nearly three years ago.

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet writes about politics, society, economics, and the areas where these collide. He has never been anything other than a journalist, though he has been involved in starting new newspapers, magazines and websites, a suspiciously large percentage of which are no longer in business. PGP fingerprint: CF74 7B0F F037 ACB9 779C 902B 793C 8781 4548 D165 Read more from Phillip de Wet

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