Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

SOUTH AFRICAN Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) news boss Jimi Mathews has defended his decision to ban the use of the words "compound", "Zumaville" and "Nkandlagate" in a piece on the broadcaster’s news site.

Mr Mathews came under fire last week from opposition parties after an e-mail he sent barred the use of the words when referring to upgrades to President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla residence in KwaZulu-Natal, which reportedly came with a price tag of R238m, at taxpayers’ expense.

"Nkandlagate, Zumaville are highly loaded and judgemental terms that explain nothing," he wrote.

"In fact their use is comment not news. Words are our stock in trade. We fail in our duty as editors and journalists if we cheapen them."

Afrikaans newspapers, Mr Mathews said, referred to Mr Zuma’s home as "private woning" and "huis", which were "all neutral references."

"Interestingly, the Afrikaans translation, ‘kampong’, is hardly ever used. Because in Afrikaans there is no question as to what the word means — a place where ‘blacks’ live," he said.

He said former president Nelson Mandela’s residence, Qunu, is also not referred to as a "compound".

He said the decision to bar the use of the word "compound" was a "matter of judgment".

In another country, the word took on different meaning, for instance it referred to large houses with several dwelling units in Nigeria and the US.

"But in South Africa the word has different connotations and hence it is an editor’s judgment call about what word to use."

He said "ironically" the e-mail "emanated from the fact" that he had called for more coverage of the costs and the controversy surrounding Mr Zuma’s residence.

The controversy over the banning of the words emerged shortly before the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) withdrew its complaint against the SABC over allegations of blacklisting of journalists and commentators hostile to the government under Thabo Mbeki.

The withdrawal on Monday closed the curtain on a saga which dragged on for five years — before the ANC’s Polokwane national conference when Mr Zuma ousted Mr Mbeki after a bruising leadership battle.

Allegations of the SABC blacklisting journalists and commentators because they were seen to be hostile to the government, and to Mr Mbeki, who was president at the time, first emerged in 2006. These allegations continued under the watch of then MD of news and current affairs, Snuki Zikalala.

In 2007, the FXI lodged a complaint with the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa claiming the state broadcaster had violated the Broadcast Act.

At a hearing on Monday, FXI legal representatives told the complaints and compliance committee of Icasa that the parties had reached a settlement on Monday morning following discussions that took place last week.

With Khulekani Magubane