By Malcolm Ray

Members of the academic and black business community in Cape Town have railed against the use of the word "coconut" by the African National Congress to describe so-called coloured supporters of the Democratic Party (DP), one of the parties in the Democratic Alliance (DA).

A snap survey by the Cape Times on Thursday showed that most felt that the word was derogatory and outmoded, and did not have a place in post-apartheid vocabulary.

A storm broke when ANC Western Cape leader Ebrahim Rasool - in a newspaper advertisement by his party - backed a remark by sports minister Ncgonde Balfour in parliament last week in which he described so-called coloured supporters of the DA as "coconuts". Balfour implied that they had brown skins but white, middle-class sympathies.

The DA responded to the comment in an advert placed by its DP spin doctor Ryan Coetzee, saying Balfour's remark was "racist".

The ANC hit back back with its own advert this week, in which it said that "the coconuts are the DA's coloured supporters who want to sell the interest of working-class supporters of the NNP to the DP".

University of the Western Cape anthropologist Steven Robins said racial categories were not a useful way of engaging in political discourse.

"There's far too little debate on substantial political questions and little discussion on issues that would help us understand identity politics in the Western Cape and take our society forward beyond race."

Shamil Jeppe, of the University of Cape Town's history department, said the ANC should be striving to get rid of racist language. "Instead of preying on identity, the ANC should have used much more nuanced language to win supporters in the province. It does not advance the cause of the ANC in the Western Cape."

UCT sociologist Zimitri Erasmus said the word "fixed society in the politics and biology of race. For the ANC to use the word to win support makes it complicit in fomenting racism."

Idasa researcher Judith February said: "I find the use of the word quite offensive and a bit crass. It would put me off."

Centre for Conflict Resolution provincial manager Lionel Louw said the ANC could not be faulted for using a word that mirrored the reality of a society fissured along racial lines in the province. "Racism is still alive and well in the Western Cape... which is why the ANC chose to use a word that characterised a situation as it exists."

Most people in the black business community were offended.

National Federal Chamber of Commerce member Mahdi Orrie said: "It's wrong to describe anyone as a coconut irrespective of whether one is trying to describe coloured people influenced by a white middle class. It's offensive and unnecessary."

Yusuf Emeran, of the Cape Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said: "No person or party should stoop to that level."

Adrianna Scholtz of the Western Cape Manufacturing Advisory Centre (CapeMac) said: "I would not be happy to be branded a coconut. It does not bode well for a party that is supposed to be leading society away from its apartheid past."

Nafcoc member Lingiwe Mabausela said racism was not the issue. "How one interprets the word coconut depends on how black people in power and with money behave. You have some blacks from disadvantaged backgrounds who turn white when they accumulate power."

CapeMac industrial adviser Zaida Jackson said: "To a coloured person, it's an insult. It's sick when senior people in the ANC can use the word coconut and think it's okay."