Kaffir (racial term)

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Kaffir (Arabic: "kaffer", /ˈkæfər/,[1] Sarnami: "kafri"[2]) is an ethnic slur used to refer to black Africans in South Africa. In the form of cafri, it evolved during the pre-colonial period as an equivalent of "negro". In Southern Africa, the term was later used to refer to the Bantu peoples. This designation came to be considered a pejorative by the mid-20th century, and it is regarded as extremely offensive.

In Southern Africa, it initially loosely referred to black Africans. The epithet kaffir has been actionable in the justice system of South Africa since 1976.[3] In 2000, the South African parliament also enacted the Promotion of Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, which has among its primary objectives the prevention of hate speech terms such as kaffir.[4] When describing the term, the euphemism the K-word is now often used instead of kaffir.[5]

Kaffir is also used to refer to another group, the Sri Lanka Kaffirs, who are partially descended from 16th-century Portuguese traders and the slaves that they brought from their colonies in Africa to work as labourers and soldiers on the island. Unlike in South Africa, the Sri Lankan Kaffirs do not consider the term offensive.[6] The Cafres of the Mascarene Islands share the same etymology and a somewhat similar ethnogenesis.


The term has its etymological roots in the Arabic word (Arabic: كافر kāfir) that is usually translated into English as "disbeliever" or "non-believer" to describe "one without religion" or by a Muslim to describe an atheist or someone who denies the existence of a God.[7] The word is non-racial and applied to non-Muslims in general, and therefore in the past to non-Muslims who were encountered along the Swahili coast by Arab traders. The trade the Arabs engaged in was partly based on slavery.[8] The Portuguese who arrived on the East African coast in 1498, encountered the usage of the term by the coastal Arabs but less so by the Muslim Swahili who used the term Washenzi (meaning "uncivilized") to 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. 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 groups in Southern Africa. In Portuguese, French and Spanish, the equivalent cafre was used.

From the Portuguese the term was passed onto their Asian possessions and today it exists in several Asian languages which include words such as Konkani in India, "Khapri" in Sinhalese and "Kaapiri" in Malayalam. The terms are descriptive of the pagan natives of Cafreria, but they are not considered offensive in either Western India or Sri Lanka.

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 and became a common word used by European settlers. Through time "Kaffir" tended, in mid-20th century Southern Africa, to be used as a derogatory term for black and non-white people, and 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]

Historical usage[edit]

Early English[edit]

The 16th century explorer Leo Africanus described the Cafri as pagan "negroes", and one of five principal population groups in Africa. According to him, they were "as blacke as pitch, and of a mightie stature, and (as some thinke) descended of the Jews; but now they are idolators." Leo Africanus identified the Cafri's geographical heartland as being located in remote southern Africa, an area which he designated as Cafraria.[9]

Following Leo Africanus, the works of Richard Hakluyt designate this population as Cafars and Gawars (Ilitterate), which is, infidels or disbelievers".[10][11] Hakluyt refers to slaves ("slaves called Cafari") and certain 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 allusion to a portion of the coast of Africa ("land of Cafraria").[12] On early European maps of the 16th and 17th centuries, southern Africa was likewise 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 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.[13]

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, as a then inoffensive term for black people in the region.[citation needed]

Similar non-derogatory usage can be found in the John Buchan novel Prester John from 1910.

Apartheid-era South Africa[edit]

In the case of Butana Almond Nofomela, while working as an undercover policeman during the early 1980s, Nofomela stabbed to death a Brits farmer, Lourens. Nofomela had only intended to rob the wealthy tiller, but Lourens confronted him with a firearm and called him kaffir. This enraged Nofomela, who then killed the farmer.[14]

The Afrikaans term Kaffir-boetie (Kaffir brother) was also often used to describe a white person who fraternised with or sympathized with the cause of the black community.[15][16] This would be analogous to "negro lover" and similar expressions used by white racists in English-speaking countries.

During the South African general election in 1948, those who supported the establishment of an apartheid regime campaigned under the slogan "Die kaffer op sy plek" ("The Kaffir in his place").


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:[17]

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 Africa enacted the Promotion of Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act. The Act's primary objectives include the prevention of hate speech terms, such as kaffir:

  • To promote equality
  • To prohibit and prevent unfair discrimination (either on the basis of age, race, sex, disability, language, religion, culture, etc.)
  • To prevent hate speech (e.g. calling people names such as kaffir, koelies, hotnot, etc.)
  • To prevent harassment[4]

Notwithstanding the end of Apartheid and the above-mentioned Act, usage of the word in South Africa 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.[18][19][20][21]

A statement made during the 5 March 2008 sitting of the South African Parliament shows how the usage of the word is seen today:[22]

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.[5]

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.[23]

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:[24]

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.

In March 2018, Vicki Momberg became the first woman to be convicted of racist language for using the term over 40 times at two South African police officers.[25][26][27]


Some indicative examples:

  • Mahatma Gandhi: "The latest papers received from South Africa, unfortunately for the Natal Government, lend additional weight to my statement that the Indian is cruelly persecuted being in South Africa ... A picnic party of European children used Indian and Kaffir boys as targets and shot bullets into their faces, hurting several inoffensive children." – Letter to the editor of Times of India, 17 October 1896.
  • Winston Churchill, during the Boer War, wrote of his "irritation that Kaffirs should be allowed to fire on white men".[28]
  • 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".[29]
  • 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, "don't call me a kaffir". This song is considered one of the 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.[30]
  • 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 players such as Shaun Pollock, Justin Kemp, Garnett Kruger were subjected to shouts of kaffirboetie, an Afrikaans term which means "brother of a kaffir".[31]
  • 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".[32]
  • 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.[33]

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

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Kaffir". Oxford English Dictionary third edition. Oxford University Press. June 2016. Retrieved 19 December 2018.
  2. ^ Biswamitre, C.R. (April 2020), "Hindostaans leven" [Hindustani life], in Helman, Albert (ed.), Cultureel mozaïek van Suriname. Bijdrage tot onderling begrip. [Cultural mosaic of Suriname. A contribution to mutual understanding.] (PDF) (in Dutch), Zutphen: De Walburg Pers, p. 224, ISBN 978-9060110737, retrieved 6 January 2020
  3. ^ a b W.A. Joubert, 1981; The Law of South Africa, VI, p251-254
  4. ^ a b "Press Statement: Public awareness campaign on Equality Courts" (PDF). Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, Republic of South Africa. 27 November 2004. Archived from the original on 11 March 2012. Retrieved 18 October 2017.CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  5. ^ a b Onishi, Norimitsu (27 October 2016). "Jail Time for Using South Africa's Worst Racial Slur?" – via NYTimes.com.
  6. ^ "Where 'kaffir' is no insult". The Telegraph. 20 November 2009. Retrieved 13 August 2014.
  7. ^ Harper, Douglas (2001–2010). "Kaffir". Online Etymological Dictionary.
  8. ^ https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2019-08-04-the-hidden-history-of-arab-slavery-in-africa-and-why-uct-should-not-ignore-it/#gsc.tab=0
  9. ^ Africanus, Leo (1526). The History and Description of Africa. Hakluyt Society. pp. 20, 41, 53, 65 & 68. Retrieved 27 July 2017.
  10. ^
  11. ^ Works by Richard Hakluyt at Project Gutenberg
  12. ^
  13. ^ "Kaffirs". Encyclopædia Britannica. 15. 1911. pp. 627–629.
  14. ^ "FORMER VLAKPLAAS MAN KILLED FARMER WHO CALLED HIM A KAFFIR". South African Press Association. 2 January 1997. Archived from the original on 1 September 2009. Retrieved 26 October 2008.CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  15. ^ "HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS – CASE: EC131/96 – MDANTSANE". Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 1 June 1997. Retrieved 26 October 2008.
  16. ^ "CASE NO: CT/00001". Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 2 April 1996. Retrieved 26 October 2008.
  17. ^ "Promoting Worker Rights and Labour Standards: The Case of Namibia" (PDF). Labour Resource and Research Institute. November 2003. Archived from the original (PDF) on 22 July 2011. Retrieved 26 October 2008.
  18. ^ Makatile, Don. "Kollapen battles for equality". Sowetan. Archived from the original on 7 September 2009. Retrieved 26 October 2008.
  19. ^ Mabaso, Thabo (2 February 2008). "Khoza's k-word opens a can of worms". Independent Online. Retrieved 26 October 2008.
  20. ^ "We will take K-word Khoza to court, says HRC". Independent Online. 2 February 2008. Retrieved 26 October 2008.
  21. ^ "Apologise for using the k-word or else: SAHRC". Independent Online. 2 February 2008. Retrieved 26 October 2008.
  22. ^ "Statement on Cabinet Meeting of 5 March 2008". South African Department of Foreign Affairs. 5 March 2008. Retrieved 26 October 2008.
  23. ^ Erasmus, Jonathan (16 March 2012). "Fine for racist insult". The Witness. Archived from the original on 15 July 2014. Retrieved 15 July 2014.
  24. ^ Grobler, Andre (15 July 2014). "Man loses appeal over k-word". SAPA. Archived from the original on 15 July 2014. Retrieved 15 July 2014.
  25. ^ "Vicki Momberg sentenced for racism".
  26. ^ Gqirana, Thulani. "DA to suspend Penny Sparrow over racist comments". The M&G Online. Retrieved 28 March 2018.
  27. ^ "Penny Sparrow back in court on criminal charges for racist comments". CityPress. Retrieved 28 March 2018.
  28. ^ Johann Hari (27 October 2010). "Not his finest hour: The dark side of Winston Churchill". The Independent. Retrieved 30 March 2018.
  29. ^ "Tales of a Traveler: (a) The Kaffir on the Karoo". memory.loc.gov. 29 March 2018.
  30. ^ Mhlambi, Thokozani. "'Kwaitofabulous': The study of a South African urban genre". Journal of the Musical Arts in Africa, vol 1 (2004): 116–127.
  31. ^ "Call for life bans after Kaffir slurs – Cricket – Sport – smh.com.au". www.smh.com.au.
  32. ^ Pearce, Linda (5 October 2010). "Klein stripped of coaching support". The Age. Retrieved 5 October 2010.
  33. ^ "Blood Diamond (2006)" – via www.imdb.com.
  34. ^ (ISBN 0-19-211579-0)

External links[edit]