Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

Compounds, refugees and choosing your words carefully

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.

Tags: , , , , , ,

  • Numsa: Is this the left’s moment?
  • Is the public protector an ‘enforcer’ or a ‘recommender’?
  • The strange case of the disappearing president
  • Lost for words to describe Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma
  • 30 Responses to “Compounds, refugees and choosing your words carefully”

    1. Point Blank #

      Time for tip-toeing around issues and being “careful” is over. The people are realising this, many know what the definition of compound is. If Twitter is anything to go on, then considering it was trending for days is testimony to this…

      We not as stupid as the ANC still believe many of us are.

      November 9, 2012 at 11:11 am
    2. johnbpatson #

      I know you should not laugh but the “c” word, comrade, started to upset the government in Zim after 1980 because of they way it was used by “certain sections of society” (ie whites for those whose decoders are not working.)
      And today you can read on the BBC website that the Society of Black Lawyers in the UK, wants to take Tottenham foot ball club, a club founded by East-end Jews and which always has a very high proportion of Jewish supporters, to court because its supporters use the Y word (three letters, ending in d ) in their, often very funny chants.
      That will be a court case it will be worth queuing to watch…..
      And in Kwa-Zulu Natal the old-age complexes which have grown like mushrooms are referred to by the residents as compounds — but not in front of the servants please.
      Words — can’t live with them…

      November 9, 2012 at 11:27 am
    3. Mr. Direct #

      This is policial correctness gone mad.

      Pre 1994, the whole English and language was used. Perhaps we should ban all of it, just to be sure?

      (oh, wait, can I use the word “ban”? Can I use the phrase “pre 1994″?)

      But seriously, I think that the focus on these words and terms in the press is promoting racial tension, and I think this is something that is completely counter-productive.

      I do not believe there is malicious tone in the way they are used to begin with, as doing this on purpose would detract from the very serious concerns they were used to highlight. Surely South Africans are not fooled by these diversions.

      November 9, 2012 at 3:12 pm
    4. OneFlew #

      Well done, excellent piece.

      November 9, 2012 at 4:16 pm
    5. An excellent analysis.
      Why is is so hard for the white tribal DA to understand this? Its all about the context in which words are used that convey subtly different meanings and reveals more about the speaker than the topic being discussed.

      Zille being part of apartheid mainstream media during our dark past, automatically uses these destructive techniques without thinking of the consequences. Similarly, it was western main stream media labeled Gadaffi’s residences as a “compound” while Libyans would call it a palace. Even Yasser Arafat residences, fortified for obvious security reasons was labeled a “compound” by western media as was Osama bin Laden’s home in Pakistan before his long overdue execution.

      While US neocon politician Mitt Romney did it behind closed doors when he referred to the “that 47%”, Zille is incapable of hiding how she really sees some of her fellow human beings – refugees, compounds etc. The degree to which she debases others can be seen when President Zuma was elected, even then she refused to shake his hand to congratulate him! Or when she brazenly engages in fronting to make the DA look multiracial. These blind spots prevent her from seeing how hurtful her divisive politics really are!

      November 9, 2012 at 5:09 pm
    6. In my circle of aquaintances, which was obviously different to yours, the word compound was only used for single sex accommodation on the mines, not for any kind of family dwelling either white or black.

      And ALL the people, mainly Xhosa, who have flooded into the Cape post 1993 are obviously refugees from something!

      November 9, 2012 at 6:18 pm
    7. Balt Verhagen #

      Accusations of racism are invariably the last refuge of the scoundrel.

      Stop trying to justify the scoundrels by examining and questioning words. We have enough ‘forbidden’ words as it is already, so do not indulge in further limitations of the language we use. Like the no-go areas they proclaim, using apartheid legislation, nogal.

      November 10, 2012 at 4:02 pm
    8. Reducto #

      “Zille being part of apartheid mainstream media”

      Whether or not you like Zille in the present – personally I don’t – your constant lies about her role during apartheid are nothing but shameless propaganda. Lies you repeat over and over with zero evidence. But then again, it is clear to anyone who reads your posts you belong to the “repeat a lie a thousand times” school of propaganda. Shameless, shameless propaganda troll.

      November 10, 2012 at 8:54 pm
    9. anton kleinschmidt #

      Oh, come of it. These words are only seen in the context you suggest by 1) the anc and their supporters who are desperate to deflect public attention from the ongoing collapse of everything that they stand for and 2) equally desperate journalists and bloggers who have absolutely nothing original or insightful to write about. The people fleeing from the Eastern Cape ANC’s incompetence are refugees and Zuma disgraceful collection of buildings are a compound. Unless of course you favour redesigning the entire English language to suit the uninformed

      November 11, 2012 at 8:44 am
    10. Words #

      Actuually, accusations of racism are normally the first refuge of the scoundrel and the intellectually lazy and bankrupt. They require no analysis, insight or even logical thought. The dumbest, and most pernicious in society can accuse others of racism. However whether the description of the president’s palace as a ‘compound’ ‘bunker’ or whatever else, or the fact that it was unlawfully and imorally built with public funds are more important, is up to the citizen to decide. The government clearly has nothing but contempt for the citizen’s intelligence, and hence has chosen to focus on the former.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:32 am
    11. Words #

      Actually, accusations of racism are normally the first refuge of the scoundrel and the intellectually lazy and bankrupt. They require no analysis, insight or even logical thought. The dumbest, and most pernicious in society can accuse others of racism. However whether the description of the president’s palace as a ‘compound’ ‘bunker’ or whatever else, or the fact that it was unlawfully and imorally built with public funds are more important, is up to the citizen to decide. The government clearly has nothing but contempt for the citizen’s intelligence, and hence has chosen to focus on the former.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:32 am
    12. Marianne de Leuca #

      Dave Harris says: “..she brazenly engages in fronting to make the DA look multiracial..”

      In saying that it is obvious he implies that black people who join the DA are powerless and incapable of thinking for themselves, or of making principled and rational decisions, or are susceptible to selling themselves to the highest bidder (laughable considering that the DA does not offer the same bling lifestyle and their ministerial handbook is spartan in comparison to the ANC’s).

      So why do they join the “white tribal DA” …perhaps Helen Zille is holding a gun to their heads?

      November 11, 2012 at 11:40 am
    13. Skumbuzo #

      and there goes Dave Harris, doing the same thing……..all emotion and little fact…….I’m sure the name Dave Harris is a pseudonym for Comrade

      November 11, 2012 at 10:25 pm
    14. @Marianne de Leuca
      “..perhaps Helen Zille is holding a gun to their heads?”
      Actually you’re confusing this with her ancestors who resorted these brutal techniques during centuries of colonialism and apartheid. Nowadays however, they’ve become much more sophisticated, wielding economic power as a weapon to entice the compliant ones to do their bidding, aka fronting. However, this abuse of democracy is not labeled this as corruption, is it?

      November 12, 2012 at 8:07 am
    15. Tofolux #

      @Sarah this article smacks of hypocrisy and downright misrepresentation. Not only are you quite convenient with the truth but clearly once again an apologist jumps up-n-down trying to create an issue out of a non-issue. The glaringly obvious thing that jumps out is the lack of acknowledgement of our barbaric history and how disaffected/disconnected you are to this particular fact. Let me reiterate, yes the system of inhumanity as practised a mere 18 yrs was barbaric. This flippant hovering over an abusive history for your own agenda is problematic to say the least. It is quite revealing that you admit that the madame ”gave her detractors a useful opportunity”. Is that all it is? An opportunity for the detractors of the madam? I mean, no outrage at her shameless exposure of what or how she thinks, or her feelings about fellow South Africans? Also, isnt it diabolotical that she is a leader and that you personally think that no recourse is forthcoming other than the fact that she has given her ”detractors an opportunity”. Inasmuch as you claim to hold others responsible, I daresay that you forget that with your obvious opportunities to write, we need to hold you responsible for honesty and objectivity. I suggest you research this thing about compound and come back and inform us responsibly. To defend the madam or any other person who makes similiar utterances, is just perverse.

      November 12, 2012 at 8:47 am
    16. Lesego #

      Its such a coincidence that I was earlier on pondering about why the only time I hear a residence called a compound is when Osama or Gaddaffir or someone who lives in the Middle East lives in, to the point that I even had to google for a definition as I was wondering why compounds are only found there. The definition on Wikipedia didnt describe anything out of an ordinary residence really, so I actually also found this compound thing somewhat racist in a way. I think its being used to belittle a particular race’ ways of living by confining their residence to a particular term.

      By mentioning areas like townships, ghettos or favelas you are most definitely talking about a black area.

      November 12, 2012 at 8:51 am
    17. amused reader #

      C’mon !!!! Freud saw sexual connotations in everything you said and did, the current ANC see race in everything. It is about their obsessions with the topic, not ours.

      No fair minded individual can possibly take Zille’s actions around nkandla as racist.

      Shame on Maharaj for stooping so low.

      Personally I’d much rather be called racist (and to some extent every human being is racist) than as a corrupt incompetent exploitative politician or his pitiful deceitful mouth piece !!!

      November 12, 2012 at 9:28 am
    18. amused reader #

      C’mon !!!! Freud saw sexual connotations in everything you said and did, the current ANC see race in everything. It is about their obsession with the topic, not ours.

      No fair minded individual can possibly take Zille’s actions around nkandla as racist.

      Shame on Maharaj for stooping so low.

      Personally I’d much rather be called racist (and to some extent every human being is racist) than as a corrupt incompetent exploitative politician or his pitiful deceitful mouth piece !!!

      November 12, 2012 at 9:31 am
    19. The Creator #

      “Refugee” was a studied insult, and deservedly aroused a great deal of ire.

      “Compound”, however, is the term which has been used by just about everyone talking about Nkandla. You can’t really call a walled complex incorporating dozens of structures a “residence”, “palace” would be insulting, and “great place” would be wrong since Zuma isn’t a traditional leader.

      I think this is a fuss about absolutely nothing.

      November 12, 2012 at 11:03 am
    20. Is Kennedy Compound or Camp David Compound also racist?

      Because that is what the American media calls those clusters of residences.

      November 12, 2012 at 4:18 pm
    21. Lesego #

      The Creator #

      “…You can’t really call a walled complex incorporating dozens of structures a “residence”

      But the residence Osama was living in when he got apparently “killed” only comprised a single building but they still called it a compound?

      November 12, 2012 at 4:22 pm
    22. Momma Cyndi #

      A ‘compound’ is simply a multiple collection of similar objects in the same place. Compound rubbers are different rubber types which are mixed together to make a tyre. Compound interest is interest and the loan amount which are together and accrue more interest. We wouldn’t have modern medicine if it were not for compound chemicals.

      Growing up there was the ‘medical compound’ where the doctor, nurses and the clinic was situated; the ‘vet compound’ where the animals went to be cured; etc. The one and only ‘compound’ which was specifically considered to be racially segregated was the ‘workers compound’.

      Stop hijacking words!

      About a year ago, my niece took her son to the local park. We were all standing around when a grandmotherly type of lady remarked on one of the kids who was on the climbing frame. The child’s mother went berserk about the horrible racism of it – apparently the word ‘squirrel’ is now a racially charged word and you cannot exclaim how a child is as agile as one without giving offense – no wonder the apartheid government wouldn’t let us talk to each other.

      November 12, 2012 at 5:19 pm
    23. Graham #

      Oh my word (excuse the pun).

      That is just pathetic. She could have called it anything, and someone somewhere would give it a racist connotation. Or if that fails, just say it has no merit as she is white…

      I love how people can still defend this “eutopia” – R250 million of our money given to uplift the poor (at least thats how I hoped it would be spent).

      But hey, I suppose if the majority of South Africans (who actually require these tax monies to benefit their current situations) have no issue with government spending money on themselves then what can we do…

      November 12, 2012 at 5:23 pm
    24. C’mon Creator, stop denying that the word “compound” has distinct connotations.

      Remember when the FBI attacked the “compound” in Waco, Texas inhabited by that cult leader of the Branch Davidians religious sect in 1993?

      Remember when polygomist “compound” at Zion Ranch at the Arizona-Utah border that was investigated for the abuse of children in 2008?

      Stop being disingenuous about the use of that loaded word! Zille know exactly what she is doing!

      November 12, 2012 at 5:40 pm
    25. Momma Cyndi #

      Lesego

      If you go to the middle east, everything is divided into compounds. You have the diplomatic compound, the merchants compound, the security compound etc. I don’t know why. Maybe for security reasons? Most of those compounds have compounds within them. Most of the places have more than one building on a plot (probably due to the way the families work whereby son brings wife home and lives with mom and dad?). I very much doubt the Bin Ladens lived in a single house as it is not the norm in the area

      November 12, 2012 at 6:57 pm
    26. The Critical Cynic #

      @Momma Cyndi
      Political correctness is a dangerous scourge in the world when taken to extremes by thin-skinned overly sensitive people who lack the objectivity to consider other perspectives. I predict it is only a matter of time before you are no longer allowed to call someone an asshole for fear of offending a real anus.

      In SA I have noticed aninteresting phenomenon – if you get into an argument with someone and swear at them (e.g. because their bad driving nearly killed your child) then the swearing becomes the issue. If you, horror of horrors, make any reference whatsoever to the other person’s skin colour, then that becomes the issue. So, in order to stay on track with the thin-skinned, racially and politically sensitive people you need to stick to the issue at hand.

      For example, the issue here is really the exhorbitant amount of taxpayer money being spent on Zuma’s private residence, which happens to be in a compound by many definitions of the word, but if that offends Mac et al we can say it is on a big plot instead – now can we get back to the issue, the [waaaay much] bigger picture so to speak, the one concerning the obscene abuse of position by the ANC? Got any excuses to offer to the poor and downtrodden on this score beyond an attempt to reintroduce and strengthen a partiarchal system of fedual abuse that will affect and subjugate them most directly?

      November 13, 2012 at 1:20 pm
    27. Brent #

      Dave (bald faced liar) Harris, why dont you mention the Kennedy compound used by all media? O suppose because it wrecks your arguement. Do you agree that the state should spend over R200 million on the presidents private COMPOUND (exclude the huge amounts already spent on his official residences) with SA in huge need of other more worthy causes to spend the money on?????

      Brent

      PS – parents who flee the E Cape with their kids to get good schooling in the W cape are by definition: education refugees full stop.

      November 13, 2012 at 3:09 pm
    28. Hugh #

      Compound will look different in American dictionaries, compared to Britsh and South African dictionaries, where the mining hostel connexion is covered.

      November 13, 2012 at 5:59 pm
    29. Momma Cyndi #

      The Critical Cynic #

      Its the old smoke and mirrors trick. Deflect the attention and muddy the waters. Malema does it constantly and so does Cosatu. Now Mac is using it.

      I couldn’t care what they call the new Playboy Mansion – its my tax money that is the issue

      November 14, 2012 at 12:00 pm
    30. David #

      Harris. You called the textbook scandal a storm in a teacup. No mate. THIS is a storm in a teacup.

      November 15, 2012 at 3:25 am

    Leave a Reply

     characters available