Navigate our linguistic minefield with tolerance
Separate conversations on recent flights have underlined for me the important role language will play in our search for cross-cultural unity and harmony.
One earlier in the year was about education "refugees". The other more recently concerned President Jacob Zuma's Nkandla "compound". In both cases, the "racist" label was quite quickly applied. To recap briefly: Helen Zille, the DA leader, triggered a war about words when she tweeted about the Eastern Cape education crisis in March.
"While ECape education collapsed, WC built 30 schools; 22 new, 8 replacement mainly 4 ECape edu refugees," she wrote.
In the furore that raged until she apologised later, Zille was repeatedly branded a racist because of her use of the word "refugee" to refer to internal migrants. One of those who pinned that label on her was Marius Fransman, Deputy Minister of International Relations.
More recently, Jimi Mathews, head of news at the SABC, disturbed another hornets' nest when he told his staff: "President Zuma's Nkandla home should be referred to as the president's, or Mr Zuma's 'Nkandla residence' and not a 'compound' or 'homestead' or any other such term. Please also refrain from using imported terminology in reporting on the controversy surrounding the infrastructure developments around the residence, such as 'Nkandlagate', 'Zumaville' and suchlike."
The row that has raged over the SABC's policy has focused on the word "compound", which seemed to me an innocuous and accurate term to describe an enclosed estate housing several families brought together by some commonality.
But a neighbour on a recent flight quickly convinced me that to an African whose father worked on apartheid-era mines, the word had a negative sense. The same point has been made to me by colleagues who have experience of farm life, where the staff lived mainly in a collection of huts, shacks or houses in a "compound" some distance from the owner's residence.
Though most dictionaries define the term "refugee" to involve crossing a national border, it had seemed to me also to be an acceptable word to describe the flood of children being moved, with or without their families, from the Eastern Cape to Gauteng or the Western Cape in search of a better education. Sharing more cultural context with Zille than I do with the children - even highly educated and urbanised ones - of farm or mine labourers, I interpreted the word as she did. Again, it was a conversation on a plane that helped me to understand that others saw the term far more in the sense of victims of an African civil war with all its connotations of being driven from their homes to seek sanctuary with strangers.
But does the different personal use and understanding of these words ever deserve the label "racist"? Anyone genuinely committed to non-racialism should accept the need to be sensitive to the cultures and contexts within which they may be interpreted.
But we cannot afford to make that a new political tyranny. I am sure that within the most integrated lifestyle this country has seen, it would be possible never to discover the loading on those words and many more until their use causes bruising to one partner in a conversation. While it is necessary that all of us should develop increasing cultural sensitivity to ensure we are able to speak across our narrowing historical divides without giving offence, surely we need also to converse as far as possible without taking offence.
Among friends, the first instinct would be to query an apparently offensive term, to try to imagine what the speaker meant to convey. That should be the first instinct among political rivals, too. When couples fight, they do often use words to bruise or to wound, but usually with enough control to leave a way back. There is usually an acknowledgement some things just cannot be said. Not every conversation, not even across political divides, can be a fight to the death.
The last thing we need is a new movement for political correctness, but Wikipedia's definition of that term does offer some hints, calling it "a term which denotes language, ideas, policies, and behaviour seen as seeking to minimise social and institutional offence in occupational, gender, racial, cultural, sexual orientation, certain other religions, beliefs or ideologies, disability, and age-related contexts, and, as purported by the term, doing so to an excessive extent". Political correctness arose out of an era of particular arrogance and insensitivity on the part of those blessed with wealth, health and white skins and was necessary to make the pendulum swing back.
It continued once that point was made and accepted to blight our language and societies, however, because so many people were determined to take offence even when none had been intended. We need to learn to talk across every divide on the assumption that neither side would willingly allow themselves to give offence. We need to assume innocence unless guilt is proven.
The problem is the temptation of political opportunity. In a society as politicised as ours, with no tradition of inter-party tolerance, the temptation can be overwhelming to deliberately misunderstand and so justify the knock-out power that the racism charge packs. If all of us can accept ours is neither the only nor the exclusively correct cultural context, we will get a lot further towards national reconciliation and unity.
If we are to succeed as a non-racial society that includes significant non-African communities as full members, we will have to find ways through the linguistic minefield and agree to limit deliberate use of explosive words as weapons.