The word kaffir, sometimes spelled kaffer or kafir, is an offensive term for a black person, most common in South Africa and other African countries. Generally considered a racial or ethnic slur in modern usage, it was previously a neutral term for black southern African people.
The word is derived from the Arabic term Kafir, which means ‘disbeliever’ or literally, ‘one who conceals [the truth]’.
Portuguese explorers used the term generally to describe tribes they encountered in southern Africa, probably having misunderstood its etymology from Muslim traders along the coast. European colonists subsequently continued its use. Although it was in wide use between the 16th and 19th centuries, and not generally seen as an offensive term, as racial tensions increased in 20th century South Africa and the surrounding countries, it became a term of abuse.
The word was used in English, Dutch and, later, Afrikaans, from the 16th century to the early 20th century as a general term for several different peoples of southern Africa. In Portuguese the equivalentcafre was used.
In South Africa today, the term is used both as an insult, and by some, as a common word for a black person. In any case, the term is regarded by most as derogatory (in the same way as “nigger” in other countries). 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”.
The word kāfir is the active participle of the Semitic root K-F-R “to cover” or “non- believer”. 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 origins of the term
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.
Early English usage
The works of Richard Hakluyt contains an early written use of the term in English. He writes: calling them Cafarsand Gawars, 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 of course 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, Tswanaand 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.
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.
Much like 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 2000 during the State of the Nation address at the Opening of the South African Parliament reference was made to an internal email of the South African Food and Allied Workers Union that read …I would like to summarise what the Kaffirs have done to stuff up this country since they came into power…
In February 2008 there was huge media and public outcry in South Africa after Irvin Khoza, then chairperson of the2010 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 ‘kaffir’ itself, similar to ‘the N-word’, used to represent ‘nigger’.
Examples of use
Some indicative examples:
- At the start of the 1946 Sherlock Holmes film Terror by Night, the narrator speaks of a famous diamond “First touched by the fingers of the humble kaffir…” while a black man is shown picking up a stone from the ground.
- Kaffir is the title of a 1995 hit song by the black JohannesburgKwaito artist Arthur Mafokate. The lyrics say, “I don’t come from the devil, don’t call me a kaffir, you won’t like it if I call you baboon”. This song is considered one of the very first hits of the Kwaito genre, and is said to have set precedent for the post-apartheid generation struggle of combining dance music with the new phenomenon of freedom of expression in South Africa.
- Kaffir Boy is the title of Mark Mathabane’s autobiography, who grew up in the township of Alexandra, travelled to the United States on a tennis scholarship, and became a successful author in his adoptive homeland.
- In the film Lethal Weapon 2, South African criminal Arjen Rudd (played by Joss Ackland), his colleague Pieter Vorstedt (played by Derrick O’Connor) and their followers frequently refer to Danny Glover’s character Roger Murtaugh, who is African American, as a “kaffir”. His partner Detective Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) is referred to as a “kaffir-lover”. At the end of the movie when Riggs and Murtaugh kill off the bad guys, Murtaugh says they were “de-kaffirnated.”
- South African cricket players complained that they were racially abused by some spectators during a December 2005 Test match against host country Australia held in Perth. Makhaya Ntini, a black player in the team, was taunted with the word “kaffir”. Other white and coloured players were subjected to shouts of kaffirboetie, anAfrikaans term which means “brother of a kaffir”. Ntini said he could not tell whether the abuse was coming from Australians or South African emigres living in Perth.
- Australian tennis player Brydan Klein was fined $16,000 following a qualifying match at the Eastbourne International, June 2009, for unsportsmanlike conduct after allegedly calling his South African opponent, Raven Klaasen, a “kaffir.”
- In the film The Wild Geese (1978), Peter Kotzee (played by Hardy Kruger) explains to his fellow officers, “We have blacks in South Africa. We call them Kaffirs which is just like you calling them niggers. I don’t particularly like them but I don’t like killing them.”
- In the film Blood Diamond (2006), Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Danny Archer refers to Djimon Hounsou’s character Solomon Vandy as a Kaffir, which triggers the start of a vicious fistfight.
Sri Lankan Kaffirs
The Sri Lanka Kaffirs are an ethnic group in Sri Lanka who are partially descended from 16th century Portuguesetraders and the African slaves who were brought by them to work as labourers and soldiers. Unlike the situation in South Africa, the Sri Lankan Kaffirs are proud of their name, and do not consider it a racist slur.