The word kaffir (or alternatively kaffer) is a term used in Southern Africa to refer to a black person. Now considered an offensive ethnic slur, it was formerly considered by whites to be a neutral term for black South Africans.
- Potential Zulu origin
- Early English
- Colonial period
- Apartheid era South Africa
- Post apartheid South Africa
- Alternative usage
The word is derived from the Arabic term kafir (meaning "disbeliever"), which originally had the meaning "one without religion". Arab Traders adopted the term to refer to non-Muslim peoples. Variations of the word were used in English, Dutch, and, later, in Afrikaans, from the 17th century to the early 20th century as a general term for several different peoples of Southern Africa. In Portuguese, in French and in Spanish, the equivalent cafre was used. The term acquired a distinctly derogatory meaning in the context of South African history, especially during the Apartheid era. In Afrikaans, the term is more commonly spelled kaffer.
In South Africa today, the term is regarded as highly racially offensive, in the same way as nigger in the United States and other English-speaking countries. It is seldom used as an isolated insult, but rather is used systematically by openly racist people when talking about black people, and as such was very common in the apartheid era. Use of the word has been actionable in South African courts since at least 1976 under the offense of crimen injuria: "the unlawful, intentional and serious violation of the dignity of another".
"Kaffir" is derived from the Arabic word (Arabic: كافر kāfir) that is usually translated into English as "non-believer", i.e. a non-Muslim. The word was originally applied to non-Muslims in general, and therefore to non Muslim black peoples encountered along the Swahili coast by Arab traders. Portuguese national poet Camões used the plural form of the term (cafres) in the fifth canto of his 1572 poem Os Lusíadas. This interpretation was probably passed on to other European settlers and explorers.
The word kāfir is the active participle of the Semitic root K-F-R "to cover". As a pre-Islamic term, it described farmers burying seeds in the ground, covering them with soil while planting. Thus, the word kāfir implies the meaning "a person who hides or covers". In Islamic parlance, a kāfir is a person who rejects Islamic faith, i.e. "hides or covers [viz., the truth]".
Potential Zulu origin
One implausible theory holds that in southern Africa the word was originally used by the Zulu King uShaka to refer to the white settlers as "amakhafola" meaning people that have been spat out, as he thought the settlers were spat out by the sea. The Zulu peoples pronounce the letter "r" as "l". On learning this the settlers changed "amakhafola" to "amakhafora", and used it to describe the indigenous peoples. This is highly unlikely, as this use would have postdated the presence of Islam, and hence the use of the word "Kaffir" for unbeliever, in South Africa.
The works of Richard Hakluyt contains an early written use of the term in English. He writes: "calling them Cafars and Gawars (Ilitterate), which is, infidels or disbelievers". He refers to the slaves ("slaves called Cafari") and inhabitants of Ethiopia ("and they use to go in small shippes, and trade with the Cafars") by two different but similar names. The word is also used in reference to the coast of Africa ("land of Cafraria"). On early European maps of the 16th and 17th centuries, southern Africa was called by cartographers Cafreria.
The word was used to describe all black people in the region, excluding the San and Khoi Khoi, at the time of Europeans' first contact with them. This included many ethnic groups, such as the Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana and others. The pidgin language developed for whites to communicate with these people, Fanagalo, was sometimes called "Kitchen Kaffir". The term was also used by early Boer trek farmers to describe a person not converted to Christianity, similar to the Arabic meaning.
The word was used officially in this way, without derogatory connotations, during the Dutch and British colonial periods until the early twentieth century. It appears in many historical accounts by anthropologists, missionaries and other observers, as well as in academic writings. For example, the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford originally labeled many African artifacts as "Kaffir" in origin. The 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica made frequent use of the term, to the extent of having an article of that title.
Occasionally, the word was used to refer specifically to the Xhosa people, as in such inoffensive linguistic works as interpreter Bud' Mbelle's Kafir Scholar's Companion, Kropf's Kaffir-English Dictionary, J. Torrend's Outline of Xosa-Kafir Grammar, and J. McLaren's Introductory Kaffir Grammar, where a distinction was made between the 'Kaffir' Xhosa and the other Bantu tribes of Southern Africa; Bud' Mbelle was himself a member of the Mfengu tribe, closely related to the Xhosa and Zulu people. More recent editions of both of these works have had their names sanitised by current standards, and the word "Kaffir" has been replaced by the word "Xhosa" wherever deemed necessary, especially in the case of the Revised Kaffir Bible — a translation of the Bible into the Xhosa language. British Kaffraria was a colony in the Eastern Cape.
The term "Kaffirs" has been used since the mid-1800s on the London Stock Exchange to refer to South African mining shares.
The late nineteenth–early twentieth century novelist, H. Rider Haggard, frequently used the term "kaffir" in his novels of dark Africa, especially those of the great white hunter, Allan Quatermain. Haggard, who was a contemporary of Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling, never used the term with any derogatory intent. It just referred to native blacks. In fact, Haggard stands as one of the primary tellers of native African culture, religion and superstition, often giving them the upper hand in terms of cleverness and spirituality to whites.
Apartheid-era South Africa
During the 20th century, the word gradually took on negative connotations. By 1976, its use was actionable in court in South Africa. On a number of occasions the use of the term Kaffir led directly to violence or even death, as in the case of Almond Nofomela. While working as an undercover policeman during the early 1980s, Nofomela stabbed and killed a farmer after being allegedly called a kaffir.
The Afrikaans term Kaffir-boetie (English: Kafir brother) was also often used to describe a white person who fraternised with or sympathized with the cause of the black community. This would be similar to "nigger-lover" and similar expressions used by white racists in English-speaking countries.
Much as in South Africa the term was used as a general derogatory reference to blacks. A 2003 report by the Namibian Labour Resource and Research Institute states:
Kaffir in the Namibian context was a derogatory term which mainly referred to blacks in general but more particularly to black workers as people who do not have any rights and who should also not expect any benefits except favours which bosses ('baas') could show at their own discretion.
Post-apartheid South Africa
In 2000, the parliament of South African enacted Act No. 4 of 2000: Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act. that contains the following clause relating to hate speech:
10. (1) Subject to the proviso in section 12. no person may publish, propagate, advocate or communicate words based on one or more of the prohibited grounds, against any person, that could reasonably be construed to demonstrate a clear intention to -
(a) be hurtful;
(b) be harmful or to incite harm;
(c) promote or propagate hatred.
Though the Act does not list any specific words, it is generally understood to restrict the use of the words kaffir, koelie, hotnot, meid and other derogatory racial terms.
Notwithstanding the end of Apartheid and the above-mentioned Act, use of the word continues today.
In February 2008 there was huge media and public outcry in South Africa after Irvin Khoza, then chairperson of the 2010 FIFA World Cup organizing committee, used the term during a press briefing in reference to a journalist.
A statement made during the March 5, 2008 sitting of the South African Parliament shows how the usage of the word is seen today:
We should take care not to use derogatory words that were used to demean black persons in this country. Words such as Kaffir, coolie, Boesman, hotnot and many others have negative connotations and remain offensive as they were used to degrade, undermine and strip South Africans of their humanity and dignity.
The phrase the K-word is now often used to avoid using the word itself, similar to the N-word, used to represent nigger.
In 2012 a woman was jailed overnight and fined after pleading guilty to crimen injuria for using the word as a racial slur at a gym.
In July 2014, the Supreme Court of Appeal upheld a 2012 conviction for offences of crimen injuria and assault relating to an argument about parking in which a man used the word. The judgement states:
The word kaffir is racially abusive and offensive and was used in its injurious sense ... in this country, its use is not only prohibited but is actionable as well. In our racist past it was used to hurt, humiliate, denigrate and dehumanise Africans. This obnoxious word caused untold sorrow and pain to the feelings and dignity of the African people of this country.
A popular food made from watermelon preserve is still sometimes called kafferwaatlemoen ("kaffir watermelon"), but the term konfytwaatlemoen ("jam watermelon") is increasingly used.
Some indicative examples:
The term is also used to refer to an ethnic group in Sri Lanka, the Sri Lanka Kaffirs, who are partially descended from 16th century Portuguese traders and the African slaves who were brought by them to work as labourers and soldiers. Unlike in South Africa, the Sri Lankan Kaffirs do not consider the term offensive.
"Kaffir lime" is one of the names of a citrus fruit native to tropical countries in South and South East Asia. Its etymology is uncertain, but most likely was originally used by Muslims as a reference to the location the plant grew, which was in countries populated by non-Muslims (Hindus and Buddhists). Under this interpretation, the plant name shares an origin with the South African term - both ultimately derived from Kafir, the Arabic word for "non-believer". The fruit name as such never had any offensive connotations, but due to the present negative connotations of "Kaffir" The Oxford Companion to Food recommends that the alternative term "makrut lime" be favored when speaking of this fruit.