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Portuguese explorers adopted the term to refer to black non-Muslim peoples when they became involved in the Arab slave trade along the coast of East Africa. Later, other European traders also adopted its use.
Variations of the word were 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 equivalent cafre was used. The term acquired a distinctly derogatory meaning in the context of South African history, especially during the Apartheid era.
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".
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]".
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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, 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.
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.
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.
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 'kaffir' itself, similar to 'the N-word', used to represent "nigger".
Recently the word "Kaffir" has been used as slang in a shortened version "Kaff" and it gained a new meaning (uncivilized behavior or person) in the same way the word "Ratchet" is used in the United States. This particular use of the word is common amongst youngsters of the Western Cape Province in South Africa.
Some indicative examples:
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The Sri Lanka Kaffirs are an ethnic group in Sri Lanka 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 the situation in South Africa, the Sri Lankan Kaffirs are proud of their name, and do not consider it a racist slur.