Kaffir (racial term)

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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.

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.[1]

There is a Non-Islamic ethnic group in the Hindu Kush mountains of Northern Pakistan who are called the Kalash Kafir by their neighbors. Their land was known as Kafiristan in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


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]".[citation needed]

"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. The Portuguese nation who arrived on the East African coast in 1498, encountered the usage of the term by the coastal Arabs (but not the Swahili who used the term Washenzi (meaning "uncivilized") to the describe the non-Islamic people of the African interior. The 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 Europeans in succession, the Spanish, English, Dutch and French. From the Portuguese the termed was passed onto their Asian possessions and exists in several Asian languages including Konkani in India as "Khapri" and in Sinhalese as "Kaffir". The terms are descriptive of people of African descent, but are not considered offensive in either Western India or in Sri Lanka.

The word is derived from the Arabic term kafir (meaning "disbeliever"), which originally had the meaning "one without religion".[2] Arab Traders adopted the term to refer to non-Muslim people. 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 people 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. 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".[3]

Potential Zulu origin[edit]

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 people pronounce the letter "r" as "l". On learning this the settlers changed "amakhafola" to "amakhafora", and used it to describe the indigenous people. 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.

Historical usage[edit]

Early English[edit]

The works of Richard Hakluyt[4] contains an early[when?] written use of the term in English. He writes: "calling them Cafars and Gawars (Ilitterate), which is, infidels or disbelievers".[5] 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").[6] On early European maps of the 16th and 17th centuries, southern Africa was called by cartographers Cafreria.

Colonial period[edit]

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.[citation needed]

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 Encyclopædia Britannica made frequent use of the term, to the extent of having an article of that title.[7]

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[citation needed].

Apartheid-era South Africa[edit]

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 Butana Almond Nofomela. While working as an undercover policeman during the early 1980s, Nofomela stabbed and killed a farmer after being allegedly called a kaffir.[8]

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.[9][10] 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:[11]

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.

Modern usage[edit]

Post-apartheid South Africa[edit]

In 2000, the parliament of South African enacted Act No. 4 of 2000: Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act.[12] 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[by whom?] to restrict the use of the words kaffir, koelie, hotnot, meid and other[which?] derogatory racial terms.[13]

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.[14][15][16][17]

A statement made during the March 5, 2008 sitting of the South African Parliament shows how the usage of the word is seen today:[18]

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.[19]

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:[20]

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:

  • Mahatma Gandhi "A general belief seems to prevail in the Colony that the Indians are little better, if at all, than savages or the Natives of Africa. Even the children are taught to believe in that manner, with the result that the Indian is being dragged down to the position of a raw Kaffir.”
  • John Philip Sousa's 1914 concert suite "Tales of a Traveler," composed after his band's tour to South Africa, contains a movement titled "The Kaffir on the Karoo."[21]
  • 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 Johannesburg Kwaito 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.[22]
  • 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 (who were smuggling illicit drugs hidden in coffee), 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, an Afrikaans 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.[citation needed]
  • 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."[23]
  • 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.[24]

Alternative usage[edit]

"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 [25] recommends that the alternative term "makrut lime" be favored when speaking of this fruit.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Where 'kaffir' is no insult". The Telegraph. 20 November 2009. Retrieved 13 August 2014. 
  2. ^ Harper, Douglas (2001–2010). "Kaffir". Online Etymological Dictionary. 
  3. ^ W.A. Joubert, 1981; The Law of South Africa, VI, p251-254
  4. ^ Works by Richard Hakluyt at Project Gutenberg
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ "Kaffirs". Encyclopædia Britannica. 15. 1911. pp. 627–629. 
  8. ^ "FORMER VLAKPLAAS MAN KILLED FARMER WHO CALLED HIM A KAFFIR". South African Press Association. 1997-01-22. Retrieved 2008-10-26. 
  9. ^ "HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS - CASE: EC131/96 - MDANTSANE". Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 1997-06-11. Retrieved 2008-10-26. 
  10. ^ "CASE NO: CT/00001". Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 1996-04-24. Retrieved 2008-10-26. 
  11. ^ "Promoting Worker Rights and Labour Standards: The Case of Namibia" (PDF). Labour Resource and Research Institute. November 2003. Retrieved 2008-10-26. 
  12. ^ "Act No. 4 of 2000: Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act." (PDF). Government Gazette. 2000-02-09. Archived from the original (PDF) on August 28, 2008. Retrieved 2008-10-26. 
  13. ^ "Press Statement: Public awareness campaign on Equality Courts" (PDF). Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, Republic of South Africa. 2004-11-27. Retrieved 2008-10-26. 
  14. ^ Makatile, Don. "Kollapen battles for equality". Sowetan. Retrieved 2008-10-26. 
  15. ^ Mabaso, Thabo (2008-02-26). "Khoza's k-word opens a can of worms". Independent Online. Retrieved 2008-10-26. 
  16. ^ "We will take K-word Khoza to court, says HRC". Independent Online. 2008-02-23. Retrieved 2008-10-26. 
  17. ^ "Apologise for using the k-word or else: SAHRC". Independent Online. 2008-02-22. Retrieved 2008-10-26. 
  18. ^ "Statement on Cabinet Meeting of 5 March 2008". South African Department of Foreign Affairs. 2008-03-05. Retrieved 2008-10-26. 
  19. ^ Erasmus, Jonathan (16 March 2012). "Fine for racist insult". The Witness. Archived from the original on 15 July 2014. Retrieved 15 July 2014. 
  20. ^ Grobler, Andre (15 July 2014). "Man loses appeal over k-word". SAPA. Archived from the original on 15 July 2014. Retrieved 15 July 2014. 
  21. ^ http://memory.loc.gov/diglib/ihas/loc.natlib.sousa.200028254/default.html
  22. ^ Mhlambi, Thokozani. "'Kwaitofabulous': The study of a South African urban genre." Journal of the Musical Arts in Africa, vol 1 (2004): 116-27.
  23. ^ Pearce, Linda (5 October 2010). "Klein stripped of coaching support". The Age. Retrieved 5 October 2010. 
  24. ^ http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0450259/faq#.2.1.11
  25. ^ (ISBN 0-19-211579-0)

External links[edit]