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Kaffir (racial term)


Kaffir (racial term)

The word kaffir is a term used in South Africa to refer to a black person. Now widely considered an offensive ethnic slur, it was formerly considered by whites to be a neutral term for South African blacks.

The word is derived from the Arabic term kafir (meaning 'disbeliever'), which originally had the meaning 'one without religion'.[1]

Portuguese explorers adopted the term to refer to black non-Muslim peoples when they became involved in the Arab slave trade along the Swahili Coast. Later, other European traders also adopted its use.[2]

Variations of the word were used in English, Dutch, and, later, in Afrikaans, from the 16th 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 individuals 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".[3]


  • Etymology 1
    • Potential Zulu origin 1.1
  • Historical usage 2
    • Early English 2.1
    • Colonial period 2.2
    • Apartheid-era South Africa 2.3
    • Namibia 2.4
  • Modern usage 3
    • Post-apartheid South Africa 3.1
  • Slang 4
  • Examples 5
  • Alternative usage 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9


"Kaffir" is derived from the Arabic word (Arabic: كافر) that is usually translated into English as "non-believer", i.e. a non-Muslim. The word was originally applied 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" 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 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.

Historical usage

Early English

The works of Richard Hakluyt[4] contains an early 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

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.[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.

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.[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]


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

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.[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 to restrict the use of the words kaffir, koelie, hotnot, meid and other 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

  • Kaffirs in Sri Lanka: Descendants of enslaved Africans
  • Human Rights Violations Hearings & SubmissionsThe transcripts of the of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission contains a large number of references to the use of the word kaffir during the South African Apartheid era.
  • The Provenance of the term ‘Kafir’ in South Africa and the notion of Beginning by Gabeba Baderoon
  • A Dictionary of South African English on historical principles. Oxford University Press, in Association with the Dictionary Unit for South African English. 1996.  
  • 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article using the term as its title
  • Mark Mathabane (1998). Kaffir Boy. Sagebrush Education Resources.  
  • Historical definition of the term from the Nutall Encyclopedia, 1907

External links

  1. ^  
  2. ^
  3. ^ W.A. Joubert, 1981; The Law of South Africa, VI, p251-254
  4. ^ Works by Richard Hakluyt at Project Gutenberg
  5. ^
    • Richard Hakluyt. The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation — Volume 04 at Project Gutenberg
  6. ^
    • Richard Hakluyt. The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation — Volume 09 at Project Gutenberg
  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. 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. ^ Mhlambi, Thokozani. "'Kwaitofabulous': The study of a South African urban genre." Journal of the Musical Arts in Africa, vol 1 (2004): 116-27.
  22. ^ Pearce, Linda (5 October 2010). "Klein stripped of coaching support".  
  23. ^
  24. ^ "Where 'kaffir' is no insult". The Telegraph. 20 November 2009. Retrieved 13 August 2014. 


See also

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.[24]

Alternative usage

  • 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.[21]
  • 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.
  • 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."[22]
  • 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.[23]

Some indicative examples:


Recently the word "Kaffir" has been used as slang in a shortened version "Kaff" and it gained a new meaning (uncivilized behavior or person). This particular use of the word is common amongst youngsters of the Western Cape Province in South Africa.


A popular food made from watermelon preserve is still sometimes called kafferwaatlemoen ("kaffir watermelon"), but the term konfytwaatlemoen ("jam watermelon") is increasingly used.

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 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]

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]

The phrase the K-word is now often used to avoid using the word itself, similar to the N-word, used to represent nigger.

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.

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]


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