Kaffir (historical usage in southern Africa)

Kaffir (historical usage in southern Africa)

:"This article refers to the use of the word Kaffir in its historical sense as a term to describe black South African languages and cultures. :"For its use as a derogatory term of abuse, see Kaffir (ethnic slur).":"For other uses of the term, see Kaffir (disambiguation)."

The word Kaffir was used in English and Dutch, from the 16th century to the early 20th century as a blanket term for several different peoples of southern Africa. The same happened to its Portuguese equivalent "cafre" (see below). Outside this limited historical context, the word is used today only as a derogatory and offensive term of abuse.

Historical usage

The earliest use of the term in English is by Richard Hakluyt in 1589, who used the name Caffar for the inhabitants of southern Africa, a region roughly coinciding with the present territories of Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Mozambique.

The word was used, roughly, to describe all natives to the region, at the time of European arrival, besides the San and Khoi Khoi. This includes many ethnic groups, such as the Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana and other peoples. The distinction was probably made based on differences in agricultural practices, skin colour, and broad cultural features between "Kaffir" people, the Khoi Khoi and the San, but ignored significant differences in language, culture, and possibly ancestral origin within the group. The pidgin language developed for whites to communicate with these people, Fanagalo, was sometimes called "Kitchen Kaffir".

The word was used officially in this way, without derogatory connotations (apart from the implicit generalisation), 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 labelled many African artifacts as "Kaffir" in origin. For another example, the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica made frequent use of the term, even to the extent of having an article of that title.

Occasionally, the word was used to refer specifically to the Xhosa people, such as in the instance of the book , an 1886 collection of Xhosa folk lore. Another case was that of the Cape Frontier Wars between the Xhosa and the growing Cape Colony, originally, and occasionally still, called the "Kaffir Wars".

During the 20th century, the word gradually took on negative connotations. By 1976, its use was actionable in court in South Africa. Despite this, the word continued, and continues to be used.

The term as used by early Boer Trek farmers was used to describe a person not converted to Christianity, similar to the word infidel Moslems use. Christianity came to Southern Africa with white missionaries, therefore they believed all Native Africans to be unbelievers, deserving of the term.


The word is derived from the Arabic word kafir ("The Oxford Dictionary of South African English", 1996), which is commonly translated as "infidel" or "unbeliever" : i.e. someone who does not believe in, or denies the existence of, Allah. The term was originally applied to non-Muslim people in the south and east of the continent by coastal Arab traders. It is likely that Portuguese explorers, encountering these traders, interpreted the word as the ethnicity of the native African people they had encountered. 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 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 word used to describe a person who rejects Islamic faith, i.e. "hides or covers [viz., the truth] ". [3]

The word in popular culture

*In the movie The Wild Geese Boer mercenary Peter Kotzee (Hardy Kruger) explains to his fellow soldiers the meaning of the term.
*In the movie Lethal Weapon 2, Minister of diplomatic affairs for the South African consulate in Los Angeles; Arjen 'Aryan' Rudd and his right hand man Pieter 'Adolph' Vorstedt (played by Joss Ackland and Derrick O'Connor) purposely use the term for Murtaugh (Danny Glover) while his partner detective Riggs (Mel Gibson) is called a "kaffir-Lover"
*In the 2006 film Blood Diamond, ex-SADF soldier, Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio), purposely uses the term to draw anger from Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) when Solomon goes to desert him, prompting a fight between them.
*In the 2006 biographical film; Catch A Fire (based on the experiences of Umkhonto we Sizwe member Patrick Chamusso during Apartheid in 1980) the term is purposely used in the presence of Patrick Chamusso by his boss over a close friend.
*Back in the 1992 film adaption of The Power of One, the term is regularly purposely used particularly for the black prisoners by the white guards. The term has also been used in such films as Dangerous Ground and Operation Delta Force.

ee also

*History of South Africa

Further reading

*cite book|title=Kaffir Boy|author=Mark Mathabane|isbn=0833502115|publisher=Sagebrush Education Resources|date=1998|url=http://books.google.com/books?id=edVOAwAACAAJ

External links

* [http://www.sacred-texts.com/afr/xft/index.htm Digital copy of "Kaffir Folk-lore"] by George McCall Theal. A collection of Xhosa folk tales, ~220pp. S. Sonnenschein, Le Bas & Lowrey, London (1886).
* [http://www.fromoldbooks.org/Wood-NuttallEncyclopaedia/k/kaffirs.html Historical definition of the term from the Nutall Encyclopedia, 1907]
* [http://encyclopedia.jrank.org/JUN_KHA/KAFFIRS_Arabic_Kafir_an_unbelie.html 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica article using the term as its title]

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